Accountability Versus Micromanagement

Jun 06 2008 Published by under Conduct of Science

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?"

36 responses so far

  • I like this--both for the reasons you state and also because you all now have an electronic record of the progress of science in the lab, which is probably educational in its own way.

  • Nan says:

    PP, do you find your lab members making up shit in their weekly progress reports just to look productive? I found that our personnel would pad theirs like, "I plan to do __________ next," in an attempt to make it sound like they are doing a lot of things and not to update people with what's up.
    Thanks for the NIH PI cartoon. I came across is before but was funnier this time around.

  • pinus says:

    Wow! I really like this! Is there every any backlash? people whining, etc.?

  • pinus says:

    apologies for the double comment, but I thought of another question.
    Do you, as the PI, participate in this?
    I would imagine that you did not.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Why not just weekly lab meetings?

  • PhysioProf says:

    No making shit up and no real "backlash". Once in a while someone will start getting lazy or passive-aggressive about it, and make the bullet points so abbreviated and/or cryptic that they are unintelligible. When that happens, I remind them of the purpose of the reports, and things improve.
    Of course we have weekly lab meetings. With the number of trainees in my lab, there is no way that every person could enumerate the information in the written reports every week. It would take many hours.

  • Nan says:

    This question is for PP. Do your lab members bicker about whose project they "own"? One of the things we have a problem with is that projects are kept secret from each other in an attempt to scoop each other from within the lab!

  • PhysioProf says:

    Do your lab members bicker about whose project they "own"?

    No. We always have tons of cool shit to do in my lab, so this is not an issue. Also, I pay close attention to what everyone is doing, and it is very clear that I will make--and enforce--top-down decisions about this if people fuck around. So no one does.

  • blatnoy says:

    What if your lab members end their bullet points with one last bullet point that says: "Go John McCain! 8 more years of enlightened Republican leadership in the White House!"?
    That's what I would do if I wanted to be passive-aggressive to you.

  • Craig says:

    Is this in place of a weekly lab meeting?

  • Sounds overall like a good idea, but I think it might drive me crazy. It's embarrassing enough when the same damn experiment doesn't work for 4 weeks in a row (as is currently my problem), but having to announce it to the lab weekly would be tough.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Is this in place of a weekly lab meeting?

    See comment #6.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Of course, in PP's lab everything is perfect. As good as this system may sound to the PI's ears, this military-like management takes away the last drop of independence from the poor soldiers. To have both weekly lab meetings and weekly written e-mail reports to everyone in the lab is nothing short of micromanagement.

  • no, sol - military lab mgmt is what I experienced where the pi was breathing down your neck as the scintillation printout was scrolling and would ask you the same questions everytime you walked back in the lab. this pp approach is a very nice middle ground that augments lab meetings.
    also, everyone knows that using 25 mM NaCl in the second wash is the road to ruin!

  • pinus says:

    I don't see this as a particularly invasive method of management.
    If anything, this method can increase positive peer pressure, thus reducing PI induced pressure.

  • Mrs Whatsit says:

    @Candid Engineer: Of course it's might be embarrassing to have to tell people you keep doing the same damn experiment every week because it doesn't work. On the other hand, if everyone in the lab knows one person is having a problem, then one of them might have a suggestion or two to help that person fix it.
    @S. Rivlin: If my PI gets extremely excited about some experiment you're doing, he goes a little crazy. He will look at your transformation plates before you do. He will try to hunt down your slides and look at them on the scope without you. He will ask you twice a day if you have X result. He will start planning your cloning strategy without you. That is micromanagement. What PhysioProf is describing is simply keeping on top of what everyone is doing.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Mrs Whatsit,
    Your PI is either too young or immature or both to have postdocs in his/her lab. S/He should let you experience the excitement and the thrill of new scientific discoveries just as his/hers PI allowed him/her to get excited when s/he was a postdoc.

  • jsh says:

    One of the most valuable assets a lab has is its shared knowledge.
    If your experiments aren't working for 4 weeks, maybe one of your labmates has a better idea of why - but she won't know to offer it if you're hiding in shame. If you address this in a common arena, *everyone* learns the answer - which is the best solution, no?
    As PP pointed out, this kind of summarization of one's work might extend a lab meeting to 4 hours - who wants that? Another time-saver of writing the sentences down is that it forms the seed of a paper or grant; the act of writing your stuff out clearly, alone, is a good exercise for anyone.
    So yeah, great idea!
    Along the lines of shared knowledge, I'll share my own idea. I created a gmail account for our lab, and we cc: any correspondence with vendors, animal care, tech support, EH&S, and other lab matters to that account. It's another way of archiving the shared knowledge.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Sol, you're way off the deep end on this one. Enforcing the sharing of information is very important for effective management of highly collaborative interdisciplinary research. The days of the lone scientist sitting at a bench lost in his own thoughts and plugging away at some narrow question are gone.
    A buddy of mine has been using Basecamp project management sotware to organize highly collaborative interdisplinary research projects. He swears by it.
    http://www.basecamphq.com/

  • S. Rivlin says:

    PP, with all due respect, one of the drawbacks of big shot PIs with an army of postdocs is the loss of independence of the individual researcher. Collaboration is fine and dandy, but by reading most of the responses here it is clear that most believe that the single scientist (postdoc) is incapable of solving his/her experimental problems by him/herself and must rely on other colleagues in the lab to dig him/her out of the mud. You may be right about the lost days of the lone scientist however, the new approach to science today discourages independent thinking and original problem-solving. Science today is micromanaged from top to bottom, at the funding agency, at the institute where the scientist is employed, at the department level and at the lab level. All the soldiers think alike and perform alike. This is a recipe, which keeps briliance out of the system, a recipe that encourages mediocrity. It is not different from America's public school system i.e., a system that caters from the lowest common denominator.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    A buddy of mine has been using Basecamp project management sotware to organize highly collaborative interdisplinary research projects. He swears by it.
    Anyone using that Microsquash thing? the "Sharepoint" application/server dealio?

  • PhysioProf says:

    Science today is micromanaged from top to bottom, at the funding agency, at the institute where the scientist is employed, at the department level and at the lab level. All the soldiers think alike and perform alike.

    Dude, this is totally wrong.

    This is a recipe, which keeps briliance out of the system, a recipe that encourages mediocrity. It is not different from America's public school system i.e., a system that caters from the lowest common denominator.

    There may be systematic issues that encourage mediocrity in our biomedical science enterprise, but "micromanagement" ain't one of them. Maybe we're using the term differently?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    PP dude, whether you like it or not, the scarcity of funds for research, which brings about a total dependency of our research institutes on federal funding of all research projects is the mother of micromanagement.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Sol, dude, I think we are using the word differently. Can you tell us how you mean "micromanagement"?
    The way I used it in the original post and here in the comments is "concerning oneself with the day-to-day and hour-to-hour activities of a person being managed".

  • whimple says:

    PP: The way I used it in the original post and here in the comments is "concerning oneself with the day-to-day and hour-to-hour activities of a person being managed"
    The debate here seems to concern the granularity of the timescale. Your email reporting system substitutes week-to-week for day-to-day and hour-to-hour. Do you have empirical evidence for the optimality of this approach? Would fortnight-to-fortnight be better, or worse? Month-to-month? Is it project dependent? Do some projects benefit from hour-to-hour management and other from year-to-year management, and if so, how do you tell them apart, or do all projects get painted with the same brush?
    It's clearly working for you, and that's super. I wonder though whether the weekly reporting system encourages short-term technical success over long-term conceptual advance. Do your trainees ever report along the lines of, "I tried this one thing because I thought it might be cool to check out, but it didn't work and I'm still thinking about it and playing with it." How many weeks in a row do they get to report this kind of thing? Do you see your role as the final arbiter of creativity in the lab? Can people work on side-projects without your express consent?

  • PhysioProf says:

    Do your trainees ever report along the lines of, "I tried this one thing because I thought it might be cool to check out, but it didn't work and I'm still thinking about it and playing with it."

    Yes.

    How many weeks in a row do they get to report this kind of thing?

    However many is reasonable under the circumstances.

    Do you see your role as the final arbiter of creativity in the lab?

    Nope. Peer reviewers are the final arbiters.

    Can people work on side-projects without your express consent?

    Absolutely! I desperately want people to do this. Nothing makes me happier than to have one of my trainees tell me: "Dude, I tried this shit, and it fucking worked! w00t!"

  • acmegirl says:

    Creativity often comes from unexpected places. Why is it supposed to be better for the "lone scientist" to work away without outside input? Like nobody else in the lab could possibly have a more creative solution than the person doing the pipetting? I certainly don't consider weekly reports micromanagement. And sharing (within the lab) what you are struggling with is a way to bring more "brilliance" into the endeavor. Assuming you don't have labmates trying to scoop one another.
    As my PI says, there's no point reinventing the wheel. I find it extremely annoying when someone who is working on a similar project to me either doesn't share their techinical insights with me or doesn't ask around when they have a problem. Problems with reagents sometimes often get solved this way. Saying nothing wastes everyone's time.

  • Becca says:

    This technique sounds terrifying and highly useful simultaneously. +1 to the question/suggestion about you doing a weekly update for your lab too.

  • PhysioProf says:

    This technique sounds terrifying and highly useful simultaneously.

    That's the idea, dude. Complacency is bad.

    +1 to the question/suggestion about you doing a weekly update for your lab too.

    Nope. Everyone in the lab knows what I am doing pretty much all the time, because I am pretty much constantly telling them what I am doing, as I enlist their efforts.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    PP dude, you really sound like a happy duck in your little tub, completely oblivious to the fact that you yourself are micromanaged by the NIH, your university, your dean and your chairperson. Even the NIH boss (see Drugmonkey's latest post) seems to recognize that the independence of American scientists has been eroded significantly, which has led to mediocrity. I understand that you try very hard to appear as if you do not micromanage your soldiers, but you ignore the fact that you are just a small officer in the same army. Although you may have a bit more privilages than your soldiers, you, as a small lieutenant, still answer to captains, generals and a chief of staff, some of whom know nothing about science. You will continue to float in your tub and to produce yellow ducklings, some of which will continue to float too, untill someone, most probably, one of the generals, drains the tub.

  • juniorprof says:

    Any solutions to offer Dr Rivlin?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Juniorprof, the situation today in the American university is not different from the situation in Iraq: there is no simple solution. I guess one could drain the tub PP is floating in and all the other tubs other ducks are floating in and rebuilt the system where scientists are the ones who do the science, not the shnor of money. As long as PP and the rest of the American scientific community must raise the money to pay the rent, the supplies, the salaries and the overhead that pay the upkeep of all the fat administrators, science will continue to be managed as a big business where the bottom line is the first and only aim.

  • juniorprof says:

    Well S. Rivlin, that is a bit cynical for me. A few points:
    1) The American scientific enterprise does not exist for the purity of the science. There are goals that are relevant for scientific advancement but a primary outcome of taxpayer investment in science is economic development. Science is big business. Because of this science creates jobs and economic opportunity. What's the problem here?
    2) The problem right now, as PP and DM hammer home over and over is that there is too little money right now. This is especially unfortunate because we are currently at a point where more science funding is crucial to stay competitive in a world that is rapidly catching up to our scientific and technical prowess. I believe that heavy investment in science now is a must if this country is going to continue to create jobs that can compete in the global marketplace. It is likely that this opportunity window is closing.
    3) Blame the fat administrators? I hear this one alot. I have yet to spot these fat administrators. Who are these people?

  • PhysioProf says:

    Sol dude, don't drain my tub!

  • Becca says:

    *gets bitten by an imp, and can't resist*
    So your lab actually knows how much time you spend swearing up a blue streak on thar internets? And they still listen to you?
    That's it!
    PP has developed mind-control techniques of a power never before even imagined!
    AND HE'S NOT SHARING!
    Bad PP!
    Bad!!!

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Junior, this is exactly my point: science is a business and as such it must account for every penny through micromanagement.
    Fat administrators? Here's one example: The dean of my medical school, when offered the job in 1997, signed a contract according to which he received 3% of the overhead charged on each grant proposal funded by the NIH and other federal agencies, for up to $350,000 a year. When added to his annual salary of $432,000, this fat administrator made over $750,000 every year that he served as dean. None of the PIs who worked hard to secure the funding and the overhead had a nice and fat contract such as this one.
    PP dude, don't worry. In your tub, even without water, you will easily float thanks to the fact that you are full of hot air 😉

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