In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
It is quarterly review time and it is a reminder of how terribly we run the Labs these days. We run our projects really well and simultaneously run the Labs into the ground in the process. Our mode of project/program management and accountability is crushing our ability to do meaningful work. We make plans for our research, which includes milestones, Gantt charts, and the like. While I don’t have anything against planning per se, I have a lot being held to the plans. The quarterly reports are exemplars of being held to a plan that should only be an initial trajectory, and not the final destination.
I will grant you that the approach to project management has its place. A lot of rote construction projects should be done this way. A complex, but often executed project should run this way. I am talking about research. Research is the exemplar of what should absolutely not be run this way. Yet we do it with almost Pavlovian glee.
Remember the two benefits of failure. First, if you do fail, you learn what doesn’t work; and second, the failure gives you the opportunity to try a new approach.
—Roger Von Oech
The biggest problem is that the approach to doing project management along with time reporting is crushing innovation in research. Innovation simply doesn’t work this way, and it’s likely that the management is actually undermining the capacity to do innovative work. We have come up with a way of describing what they ask for “the scheduled breakthrough”. You predetermine what your “breakthrough” will be. Of course research plainly doesn’t work that way, that’s why its research. The more that you are held to the breakthroughs you promised in your plan, the less likely real success will be.
Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept?
Perhaps the worst thing about this approach is what the planning is doing to our ability to think outside the box. We are increasingly defining objectives that we know we can accomplish instead of reaching for new things. If an objective looks too difficult or risky, it will be rejected. The more we hold people to their written objectives, the more we rule out innovation and discovery. The only time people put risky objectives down on their plans are when the discovery has already been made. In other words, the plan is do deliver work you’ve already completed. This is even worse than mediocrity, it is stasis.
Following the rules of your industry will only get you so far.
This trend has been going on for several decades now. The entire approach has led to the quality of the work at the Labs decreasing. The oversight and attention to detail is directly associated with working in an environment where trust is low. While I believe that my managers trust me, it is clear that our country does not trust the Labs and science as a whole. So we have this system to enforce accountability. Maybe it does that, but it also undermines the effectiveness of the work. It is choking our science to death. I believe many of the same things are happening more broadly to research that happens at places like universities. We have more accountability and worse results. The system is harming our country seriously, and there is no end it sight.
Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation.
I have the option of being either honest and ineffective or dishonest and effective. What a horrible choice I’m being offered from a horrible, stupid system. This is what happens when trust is low.
Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.
― Winston Churchill