Herding cats and other perspectives on the organisation of our science
By Hawthorne Beyer, Nathalie Butt & Anna Renwick (University of Queensland)
Technology companies have a reputation for innovation in the design of their working environments. Google, for example, is famed for outfitting its headquarters with coffee shops, slides, masseuses, funky couches, and for the 20% time policy (employees are encouraged to take one day a week to work on anything they want). The games company Valve takes this a step further by allowing their employees to be effectively autonomous (Valve 2012). Each person joins whatever project they want to join and can initiate any project of their own (the theory is that good ideas attract other people and are more likely to succeed, bad ideas die from neglect).
These new approaches to (un)structuring the work environment are a reflection of two themes that have emerged from social science research (Pink, 2009). Firstly, traditional work environments and financial incentives are effective for repetitive, mechanical tasks, but when tasks require creativity or innovation then these strategies actually reduce performance. Secondly, a recognition of the fact that autonomy is one of the most important factors driving employee satisfaction. Management is great if you want compliance (eg, the military), but self-direction promotes engagement, productivity and satisfaction.
As Valve says in its Handbook for New Employees, if you go out of your way “to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish.”
In many ways our research network (the Environmental Decisions Group) has adopted a similar management paradigm. As recent post-docs at the Brisbane node, we have often commented on Hugh’s ‘enlightened’ view to supervision. When we arrived we were encouraged to talk to people in the group to identify potential collaborators and projects in which we could become involved, and then we were left to self-organise and self-direct. We could start our own projects, many of which could even receive funding to support them. We could forge new collaborations, join other working groups, or work on our own thing.
We feel that this freedom encourages people to:
(i) think about what the group is ultimately trying to achieve and how we can best contribute to that program in innovative ways;
(ii) naturally assume more responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the group (organising workshops, seminars and meetings, helping students, sharing useful information, etc);
(iii) be motivated, productive and more self-reliant;
(iv) begin to develop our own research themes or programmes on our path to becoming fully independent/self-directed researchers;
(v) gain professional confidence and self-knowledge (strengths and weaknesses), which contributes to our personal growth;
(vi) build effective collaborative networks both within and outside of the UQ group and the EDG.
That all sounds great but, of course, it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Some people don’t do so well in such a free environment and prefer to have more direction and feedback. Performance is largely based on self-assessment, which means it can be hard to know if you are doing well. Everyone needs constructive feedback on their performance in order to improve. Valve use peer reviews to provide people with information for them to accelerate and improve – a useful technique that could be adopted here in the EDG. Valve comments that “It’s natural in this kind of environment to constantly feel like you’re failing because for every one task you decide to work on, there will be dozens that aren’t getting your attention. Trust us, this is normal. Nobody expects you to devote time to every opportunity that comes your way. Instead, we want you to learn how to choose the most important work to do.”
“Overall, we think this is the single best working environment of which we have ever been a part.”
It is also very difficult to keep up with what everyone is working on and this means that there is sometimes considerable overlap in projects, although this is an issue related as much to group size as structure. There is a trade-off between academic freedom and coordinated effort – finding the right balance is not easy. Perhaps it is also true that too much independence in a group means that a wide variety of projects are done at the expense of making deeper inroads into one particular problem area. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
We also recognise that there is a great deal of (largely self-imposed) pressure to be productive in academia and this often leads to a culture of long hours. This is ultimately counter-productive and we think Valve’s perspective on this is something we should regularly repeat to early-career academics: “While people occasionally choose to push themselves to work some extra hours at times when something big is going out the door, for the most part working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication.”
Ultimately our sense is that this organisational paradigm works best if there is a clear high-level vision that is continually reinforced by the lead investigators. The EDG has been partially successful in this regard (Hugh gives occasional talks that are very effective), and the organisational themes do provide some structure to the output of the group. These could perhaps also be used as a framework for more regular feedback or reporting from each theme leader in order to reinforce group cohesion and vision.
Overall, we think this is the single best working environment of which we have ever been a part, and think most people are very happy here (apart from the ones that have never experienced anything else and so don’t know how lucky they are!). And the proof is in the pudding: the EDG has performed exceptionally well, as quantified by reportables such as papers, presentations and working groups.
More info: Hawthorne Beyer email@example.com
Pink D (2009). The puzzle of motivation. TED Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation
Valve: Handbook for new employees (2012). http://www.valvesoftware.com/jobs/index.html