processFrustrationsA client the other day asked me about how creative scientists could be so successful. He was amazed, because he felt that there was so much thought that needed to go into running the business of a lab that it left little room to enjoy thinking about the science itself. Have you ever felt this?
There’s a famous quote by Steve Jobs, during his Stanford Speech. “If you ask a creative person how did they come up with something, they usually are embarrassed because they say it’s something I saw” (Or something like that). This is what I think about creative people who manage to keep their business, organization, communities, or families moving and growing. They sometimes say “I don’t know.” That’s because they usually never gave it a whole lot of thought. They found an already existing system that they originally put in place in order to make things easier on their own work. They don’t want to think about management processes. So they can reserve all of their mental and emotional thoughts toward their creative developments.
I don’t think people think about processes much. This is most true for great creative scientists and leaders. Some of the most successful people have a system or rather a process in place.  This is usually a repeatable action that keeps them moving forward with little thought or trouble shooting. Processes are natural parts of our biology.  In lay terms, we would call this habits. Check out the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. It talks about creating habits that enable us to move seamlessly in the world.

I find this fascinating because in scientific research discoveries, there’s so much emphasis on discovery, that there’s little room for focus on the process of discovery. The most creative labs or research groups ultimately develop a system that they can meticulously explore their hypothesis or biological questions. They create proven working “habits” where they don’t have to think about the how to find something, but more of where to find something.
You see it takes a lot of will and effort to instill a working process or create a habit. The dedication from those that create these systems work tirelessly in order for others to benefit from the results. This is why most junior investigators use management practices from their previous parent lab. (Note, this is also, how bad habits can perpetuate, too.)
So where am I going with this and how does it apply to research management? Well, there are so many management processes out there that can already help you with your own practice. For example, budgeting, hiring, ordering, analysis, etc. The list can go on. The key is to pick one well known working process and just use it. As you continue to use it, you’ll get better at it. (All you have to do is a simple Google Search of “How to…”)
The process can be especially fruitful when you take advantage of the built in metrics. These are measurements that will help you to make sound (stress-less) management decisions and to not rely on abstract “feelings” (It just “feels” right). For example, hiring score cards can help you make sure that you’re not just going with a good feeling you had about an interviewee. Another example is a budget report with categorical spendings can help you plan out experiments that are financially viable, rather than using cheap reagents or skipping critical assays because of your spending fears.
Processes create constancy, yes. This is obvious, but I don’t think that many give thought enough about the mental/ emotional peace of mind they create, too. The key is to use existing proven systems and to improve on them to suit your objectives. Once you’ve chosen, stick with it to make logically (and emotionally) sound decisions.
Try it with mundane everyday tasks. For example, right before leaving the house, I have a habit every morning that I use to check my wallet, keys, and phone in 3 of my pant pockets, in that order. When that process is off, it triggers me to avoid leaving the house without my checklist of items. What processes have you used to make your lab or your life easier?
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