Science and Management

I am a scientist who, over the years of my career, has tried hard to avoid management responsibilities. Many of the companies I have worked for saw management as the route to promotion and success and so my attempts were not altogether successful. At one time I managed a team of 25 employees but I was never happier than when I had no line management responsibilities and was left alone to look after the strategic scientific direction of the company

I fully accept that I was probably a difficult person to manage and I can recall a number of my erstwhile managers becoming quite irate with me. I didn’t particularly blame them but on the other hand, I was always of the view that scientists generally are a difficult lot to manage. The problem is that we seem to question everything - it’s in our very nature. Challenging assumptions is the very raison d'être of a scientist and sometimes that doesn’t go down well with those whose objective it is to be in control.

I suspect that those managers reading this will spit feathers when I say that a lot of what you do seems pointless to me. For example, at one time I used to spend many hours gathering metrics which I knew were inaccurate. Tell people they have to spend less time on administration and more time in the lab, and hey presto, that’s what the metrics collated from the timesheets will start saying.  I dutifully gathered the numbers and others, far removed from  day-to-day operations, then made decisions. Give them the "right" data and they made the "right" decisions.

I remember going on a recruitment training course where we were shown how to get the highest quality people for the job. How to filter out the average candidates so we were left with the best and then how to match the principal needs of the job to the right person.

Some months later I attended a meeting where salaries and bonuses were being discussed and the same member of Human Resources who ran the recruitment training course, presented a chart showing a statistically normal distribution for performance. The message was that most staff would get an average performance score (and hence average bonus) while those receiving outstanding performance payments were going to be small in number. 

So, I asked, we have ended up recruiting average candidates after all? Surely if the recruitment strategy had worked, we should have ended up not with a normal distribution, but one skewed to the higher end. My remarks did not go down well.

Over the years, I was sent on numerous management training courses, which I always thought rather odd.  For a start, having a PhD was no qualification for management and secondly, I really didn’t have much interest in it.  Those that sent me on these courses probably had my best interests at heart but their idea of what interested me and what actually did were two very different things.

On one particular management training course, we were divided into teams and presented with dossiers on a series of patients all waiting for a liver transplant. We were told that out of the ten patients only four could be given a new liver and the others were to be left to die. We had to choose those four and justify our choice.

Our team elected a chairperson - most certainly not me - and we spent a few minutes going through the dossiers. The whole point of the exercise soon became apparent in that there were no clear choices to be made. One patient had a relatively mundane career but had five children and several grandchildren.  Another patient had no children but was about to make a breakthrough in a cure for cancer.

The team started to debate the merits of those in the dossiers when I interrupted with a suggestion.  It was perfectly obvious that there was no real outcome to the exercise, it was instead an activity in the “team dynamic” (as the session was named). It was a manufactured situation into which we were thrust to see how well we got on together and how the resulting relationships affected our decision-making abilities. I therefore suggested that because there were no candidates clearly more deserving than any other, the fairest way of deciding was to place the names in a hat and the first four drawn out got the new liver.

There was a little uneasiness amongst the group, not because of any lack of logic in the approach but because they thought it was against the spirit of why they were there. Of course the exercise was purely hypothetical and no lives were at stake and so I really didn't see a problem. After a little while the group decided it was as best an approach as any other and so we drew four names at random, then went off by ourselves to read, or walk, or watch TV or whatever.

Later that afternoon, each team had to present their results and say why they had chosen particular patients. I was chosen to present our team’s findings which I did in about two minutes.  I remember the look on the face of the instructor to this day. If looks could kill, as the saying goes.

If I had been the instructor I would have been pleased that a team had used some initiative and taken a novel approach to the exercise. If anything I would have used it to modify the course and redesigned the exercise so that the decisions had some direct impact on the team. Not liver transplants, obviously, but perhaps choosing those team members more worthy of some small monetary reward. (I understand modern versions of this exercise do precisely this).  In the case of our particular instructor however, he had no such attitude to innovation and became really quite angry that we hadn’t followed the prescribed route. 

I was marked with a bad attitude, but to be frank, surely this is just the type of innovation that business really needs by cutting away the bullshit. I have been on a very small number of training courses where there was some benefit.  One in particular on team facilitation comes to mind.  But that was a more practically oriented course and much of it based on psychology. Such courses were however, the exception. 

I’ll end this post by saying that not all managers are necessarily reluctant to be questioned but this has not been my general experience over the years.  Managers: feel free to challenge my assumptions on this.