Monday, September 15, 2008

Problem Solving Out Loud (or in text)

I am settling in nicely at ANJ. I'm enjoying the projects I'm working on and I feel like I'm making a contribution. Plus, I really like all the people I work with.

The one problem (um.. not really problem... let's call it difficulty) I am having is project management. I am used to a very organized, detailed work plan and when I am the project manager I am used to handing out assignments and setting up time lines for completion. When this happens I can check in at regular intervals, provide help where needed and have a general sense of the overall progress.

The precedent at ANJ seems to be a much more fluid process than I am used to. My supervisor feels really strongly about everyone working on things they're intellectually interested in, which is fine in theory but isn't working out so well for me in practice.

The last two team meetings we've had I have outlined what we need to do for the major project I am the lead on. This project encompasses work on 4 different topics. Thus, there are lots of options for people and I have said "my goal is to have 2 people working on each topic, just let me know which topics you are most interested in and then we can set up a game plan for how to tackle it". During or after the meetings some of the team members let me know what they want to work on and we talk about what steps they should take. I think things are going well, and then later they'll come into my office and ask me a question about a different topic. So, that indicates to me that they're jumping around from topic to topic. This doesn't really work for me.

I am not sure what the problem is. I think I'm being clear about what needs to be done and what I think is the most efficient way to split up the work. Then I tell them to pick their top choice.
  • Some team members never pick a topic.
  • Some team members pick a topic and go to work on it as I expect.
  • Some team members pick a topic and then seem to jump all over the place.
  • One person didn't pick a topic but did all this work (finding and summarizing literature) in a direction that isn't going to work for us.
Why is this happening?

I think that all of my team members are motivated and want to help with this project. So I don't think that is the problem. I think that I'm being clear about how I want to organize things (and how important it is for us to be organized so that we can meet our deadlines).

Is it possible that I just need to be more direct? Assigning topics to those who don't pick them, and giving more clearly laid out objectives so that people aren't jumping around? Basically coming out and saying "Hey once you pick/are assigned a topic, it's yours, only work on that one".

Any other ideas? Anything I'm not considering?


caroline said...

It sounds like you're on the right track. Obviously people need to pick something and then do it. That sounds pretty reasonable.

I think you should let people pick, but if some don't pick at all, you should follow up with, "Hey, I still need help with either Topic C or Topic F. Which would you like to do?" You know, forced choice scenarios?

And if they pick one and come to you with stuff for something else, you just redirecting them on the correct topic, "Wow, that's really interesting. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I will definitely share it with Joe and Suzie who are working on that topic. How are things going with your own topic B?"

I've always wondered what kind of projects non-academic researchers work on. It sounds interesting overall.

Psych Post Doc said...

Thanks Caroline. I think you're right that I just need to be more directive. I've been a little afraid to do that just because my supervisor is not direct at all. So it's been hard because I don't want to violate any culural norms here but at teh same time I really need a bit more structure.

Sorry, I can't share more about the actual work I do. It would be hard to talk about with any more detail and not have it really easy to out me.

sassymonkey said...

When the topic-switching scenario comes up how do you handle it? Do you just roll with it and not say anything to do them? Or do you say, "Oh! I thought you were working on topic A and that John Doe was working on topic B. Did you guys switch? I'd hate to bother you with questions and status requests if you've switched." or "Oh, are you helping out John, who is covering Topic B? While I have you can you give me a status update on Topic A?" It's a bit subtle but gets the point across. There's also the weekly status update route (admittedly much loathed by people who have to provide them). (Man I do not miss project management.)

Different managers have different styles. There are ways to be more hands on/direct within a looser culture. Besides, you can always use the "I'm new, it's my first project here. I'm getting a feel for the project cycle and process at ANJ."

thenextfish said...

That has to be frustrating for everyone involved. Can you spend more time discussing how their individual parts are going to contribute to the project as a whole and get them to pin down their sections at the meeting? At the least the fact that multiple people are hearing them define their topic may make the stick to it. Maybe organize individual meetings where you discuss the goals of the project.

Am I correct in thinking there is likely a looser hierarchy than in your academic role? Which would make it more important that people feel as though they're defining their own work.

Psych Post Doc said...

Thanks for the comments and suggestions everyone!

Sassymonkey- yeah I've been pretty much letting it roll and not saying anything. I need to stop being so timid and say something similar to what you suggest. It's non-threatening but gets my point across.

Nextfish- I really think I'm the only one frustrated. The team members seem to be happy with what their doing and my supervisor seems content as well.

The work is getting done, but in a haphazard way that makes me think it will lead to problems later.

I think the hierarchy is pretty clear, although my team hasn't had anyone in my role in a long time (and most of the people under me are new to the team as well).

Maybe I need to just lay it out there that this is the structure I'm used to imposing on projects I management and then see how people respond.

Psychgrad said...

I'd be tempted to ask them how they see this other project fitting in with their assigned/chosen work.