Accountability Versus Micromanagement
June 6, 2008
An important issue for every PI (actually for every manager of any creative enterprise) is to achieve accountability for performance by the trainees she manages. However, it is also important not to “micromanage” or be perceived as doing so. Science is a creative pursuit, and PIs should foster an environment in which people are free to engage creatively with the scientific mission of the lab, while also being held responsible for continued scientific productivity and progress in their training. Below the fold I describe a nice simple method for maintaining this balance.
All members of my lab e-mail a weekly activity report to the whole lab every Monday. The report consists of bullet points listing what was accomplished the prior week and what is planned for the current week. Accomplishments and plans include performance of particular experiments, data analysis, preparation of manuscripts, talks, or grant applications, etc.
This has a number of salutary effects:
(1) It forces each lab member to engage her own productivity and short-term planning. Writing things down like this forces one to think very explicitly about what one has done, and will do.
(2) It ensures that everyone knows what everyone else is doing, which enhaces scientific dialog within the lab. It also lets people know who are the experts on a particular concept or technique, or who might need some advice.
(3) It imposes public accountability for productivity. If a particular member of the lab is just spinning wheels, everyone knows it, and tacit peer pressure gets exerted.
(4) It keeps me informed on a weekly basis what is going on in my lab and provides another convenient context for me to engage with my trainees. Reading through their weekly reports frequently makes me think of useful ideas, comments, or questions for them, which I convey by responding to their reports via e-mail.
(5) People do not feel like they are being micromanaged (because they are not). This is the antithesis of the stereotypical Control Freak PI (depicted hilariously in the Nine Types of PI comic): “Why didn’t you use 25 mM NaCl in the second wash?”