Change in an Academic Research Group
Change is often needed, in any organization that wants to make progress and, even more so, in any academic research group that wants to leave some contribution to Science. This is not necessarily due to the fact that things are not working well, but rather due to a feeling that things could work even better, in particular when aiming for Innovation (for which Change is a pre-requisite). Without Innovation of some sort, at some level, a research group cannot progress in a healthy manner.
Change also takes Time. In an academic research group, most of the participants are students, who will spend 1-5 years (depending on whether they stay for an undergraduate research project or for an extended PhD research work). But this is a short time compared to the time scales allotted to employees in a company. So, implementing Change in an academic research group suffers from the lack of sufficient time to turn around mentalities, and attitudes, and culture.
Change also requires Self-motivation (or Self-drive). In an academic research environment, the remuneration factor is in fact missing completely, most of the times, leaving the leader of such a group with the responsibility to develop a remuneration-free motivation for students. In a way, this is a welcome challenge since it allows professors to design a motivational pathway in which personal financial gain or profits can be put aside, leaving a purer goal of “research for the sake of research” (or “for the sake of Society”, if that is a more satisfying positioning).
So, how to implement Change in a research group? This is what I’ll explore here, mostly for the benefit of my own future challenges, borrowing a few business frameworks in the process.
Understanding the pieces of the puzzle
One main requirement is a better understanding of the components of an organization, whether it is a large company or a small research group. Here is where one of my favorite business frameworks may come in handy: the McKinsey’s 7S Framework [1, with the seven S’s standing for Strategy, Systems, and Structure (the so-called Hard S’s), Staff, Skills, and Style (the so-called Soft S’s), with Shared Values being the “glue” holding the Soft S’s stuck to the Hard S’s.
It is absolutely critical to define a clear Strategy for the research group, or – in other words – a set of answers to the questions: Who are we addressing? What is our Value Proposition (or big Research Target)? How are we going to carry out the research? And, quite importantly: Why? Systems are needed to provide stability and coherence to the entire group, and one should put in place – even if roughly at the beginning – systems for recruiting excellent students, training new students, reporting and giving feedback, along with other administrative systems. Structure also has its importance in creating a comprehensive environment and line of report, including also specific responsibilities. In my group, I aim for a structure in which the students plan and execute the projects, the staff supports these projects from administrative aspects, and the professor’s role is to provide broader vision, strategy, funding and, obviously, constructively critical feedback.
The interesting thing about the Hard S’s, however, is that they are easy to change. You can easily alter your Strategy, add or remove a certain System and even modify the Structure of a research group for a while. The Soft S’s are, paradoxically, harder to change.
Staff – in the case of an academic research group – consists of students who usually voluntarily join the research line promoted by the lab. So, attracting self-motivated students does require a bit of effort in promoting and emphasizing the research attractiveness. But change in such aspect takes time on the order of (an) academic year. Skills are also difficult to change, if simply for the reason that research skills cannot be absorbed in a short time, but it takes long cycles of challenges and failures to properly embed then in students’ attitudes. Finally, the Style of a research group is even difficult to define, suggesting implicitly how difficult it is to control. It is easy to lose track of an ideal Style in times of challenge, but a good motto and a solid philosophy can help a lot to keep the entire group on track.
Even if both of the two big components are optimized, a research group may contain people focused more on Structure and Systems, or focused more on Skills and Style. And that’s OK, as long as both groups have the same Shared Values. This is truly the hardest part in building a successful research group: defining, promoting, internalizing and encouraging right Values for all members. Simply identifying the right Values is also definitely not enough and Communication of these Values is even more critical. So, communicate, communicate, communicate, in any situation, to anyone who listens, in any circumstances, at any time.
Make Change Step by Step
A second approach may bring even more accelerated results, following the 8 Steps of Change proposed by the famed economist John Kotter. When converted into actions suitable for a research group, these 8 steps can be rephrased as follows:
(1) Establish a Sense of Urgency – but the right type. Deadlines, project boundaries, graduations, theses – all these work many times to induce urgency, but a more refined type of urgency is needed, a controlled type, activated by a higher goal (and not only by “survival”). A good urgency can be generated by the high motivation to produce meaningful, high-quality, impactful and original research output during the time as a student – even if only as a matter of pride.
(2) Creating a Guiding Coalition. Colleagues in the department, collaborators, administrators at the institution – can all form a sort of supporting coalition. However, a Guiding Coalition must be formed within the research group, from people who are deeply involved in its activities and who can deeply understand its philosophy and broad targets. Finding the right students who can lead teams and motivate their peers is never easy, but a worthy effort.
(3) Developing a Vision and Strategy. It is hard to over-emphasize the importance of this step. If the leader does not create a worthy, valuable Vision and a compelling Strategy, embodied in all actions he/she takes, then there is no hope for the entire change to be implemented. A group of students, some barely having entered the lab, some already used with the old ways, may need different levels of definition of the Vision and Strategy, so awareness is needed.
(4) Communicating the Change Vision. In correlation with the step above, creating a base for Change is not enough, unless backed up by powerful Communication, with passion, weight, consideration, and insight.
(5) Empowering People for Action. Failure occurs often in a research lab, especially at the early stages. Micromanagement is not the way to deal with these happenings, but rather trust and empathy must be used heavily to support the process of learning from failures. In an ideal situation, the students should feel empowered, with the right tools, frameworks, and support systems, to take corrective actions to any failures, without fear of repercussions.
(6) Generating Short-Term Wins. Any success, be it a good result, completion of an experiment, a well-delivered presentation, a thesis submitted or a paper accepted, should become part of a set of success stories, celebrated by all in the group. These short-term wins have a role in building momentum for the group to achieve higher and higher goals.
(7) Consolidating Gains and Generating More Change. This stage is dedicated to accumulating all the above short-term wins into a consolidated output. For a research group, this requires an effort to arrange the piece of the puzzle in a logically consistent way, in line with the Vision and Strategy. Without this stage, the wins obtained so far become dispersed, lose their impact and may even be perceived as wasted, which may have the opposite effect of slowing down the students’ enthusiasm in generating such wins in the future. Once a loop is completed, a new stage of Change should be defined.
(8) Announcing the New Approach in the Culture. It is finally time to enjoy the group’s new Culture, hopefully one of Innovation, Psychological Safety, and Empowerment, leading to a unique atmosphere. Although students stay in an academic research group for only a few years, this Culture can be passed on to new generations, from seniors to juniors, with only a weak supervision from the professor. Enjoy it!
The steps above have been implemented, intentionally or non-intentionally, in many companies and business environments over decades. In academic environment, a few of the levers used in business may be missing (such as remuneration, profits, shares, obvious societal impact etc.). This must be compensated by a passion for exploring the fundamental science or the intriguing connections between complex parts in a system. Such a situation is actually allowed uniquely in an academic environment, and students should be encouraged to understand the benefits of doing their best on such a background.
Change may come first as a shock, but, when it is perceived as meaningful and well supported, it can be eventually acknowledged positively and then even fully embraced. This can lead to a great experience for the students and to a great research environment for the benefit of Science and, in the long run, of the Society overall.
It’s not an easy task, but I personally would like to enjoy more and more building such constructive Change, in myself and in my work environment. Let’s enjoy it, whether we work in an academic research group or not, in a most efficient and impactful way!
After all, as Heraclitus noticed 2,500 years ago: “The only constant in life is Change.”
References: Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., “In Search of Excellence”, Harper Business Essentials (2004).
Daniel Moraru, Oct. 8, 2022