Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Ask Cloud: Resources for Someone Looking to Learn Management

I have another Ask Cloud post for you, and this one is a hard one:

I'm a scientist in an academic environment who has increasing management responsibilities.  You've commented on this some before, but I was wondering if you might have some advice on books or MOOCs that could provide insight in to managing projects and people?  I ask about MOOCs, besides just books, because for some of my ideas about where my career might go, I think that having a record of management training could be useful.  If I took a MOOC, I could add it to my resume, rather than just 'I read XYZ book'.  

Thanks for any advice on this and all the other great advice you give!


As I said, this is a hard question, because there is not a lot out there about managing science, either from a people management of a project management standpoint.

Back in 2012, I posted some reading suggestions about project management, and I think those are still good. I asked a few project mangement-minded types at work, and we couldn't come up with any science-specific project management books. (And yes, I know, this means that I could still write one. I am on the fence about that. It would be a pretty big undertaking, and I'm not sure it would be worth the effort.)

Out of curiousity, I did an Amazon search, and I did find one book about managing scientists: Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Scientific Research, by Alice Sapienza. I have no idea if it is good or useful. If you know, please tell us in the comments!

Of course, I've written a few things about project management on this blog. I actually have an offer to write more about project management and management in general elsewhere (for money, even!) but that is stalled in my company's broken process for approving outside projects. Assuming I eventually get that unstuck, I will soon have more to say about management in science, and will of course let you know when and if that happens. 

Anonymous was hoping for something for the resume, though, and for that, a class is better than a book or a blog post. I am not aware of any relevant MOOCs, and my searches did not turn up anything I could recommend. All of the management classes seemed focused on strategy and not on operations, and I think for what Anonymous is after, operations is the more relevant area. However, my questions to my colleagues did turn up something useful: one of my colleauges had done a Biotechnology Project Management Certificate program run jointly by the UC San Diego and University of Washington Extensions, and thought that the classes were mostly useful. This will cost money, but is online.

My own formal project management training came via the large contracting company that decided to turn me into a project manager. Those classes were useful for that particular job, but are not all that useful for what I do now, because they emphasized formal project management techniques that I find ill-suited for the sort of projects I run these days. It is true, though, that I draw on some of the ideas (particularly about identifying dependencies and risk management) to help me in my current job. Since there don't seem to be any options specifically relevant to science project management, I think that taking a class or two on traditional PMBOK-style project management might be useful as something more than just a resume enhancement exercise. However, I think you'd want to take what you learn in those classes and seriously tailor it for the research and development environment. The full PMBOK method would be stifling in a research environment.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the more agile methods of project management that are in the ascendancy in the software development world (scrum, kanban, lean startup ideas...) and how they might be applied to research project management, and perhaps even reach into the early stages of drug development. If your interest is in finding techniques to help improve lab productivity, I'd look at those ideas. I'm still reading in this area now, but here are some preliminary reading ideas:
  • The Scrum Primer
  • The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries. I think some of the ideas around the Minimum Viable Product might be applicable
  • Something on kanban. I've got Kanban,by David Anderson queued up to read next, because I think it might help me figure out the solution to some process problems at work. I have also found Pawel Brodzinski's blog to be a source of some really good ideas, and am checking out EverydayKanban for ideas, too.
I am a project management and process geek, so I'm enjoying learning about these things. We have also switched to scrum for one of our large projects at work, and there is a lot I like about it. Like all processes, some portions will be more applicable to some groups and projects than others, but there are some good ideas for working with a team of highly trained and opinionated people, for whom the more top-down approach in traditional processes will chafe.

I am more excited by the idea of using agile methods in research science than I really should be, since no one is paying me to think about that. However, if anyone out there runs a lab (or just more than one research project) and is also intrigued by the idea of using agile methods in research... send me an email (or leave a comment). If we can work out the legal aspects, I'd love to talk to you about my ideas. I think I'd want your permission to write about the outcome, but we could figure out the details.
But back to Anonymous' question. Those are all of the resources I could come up with. Does anyone else have any suggestions?


  1. A recommendation from @RowGirl2012 in my Twitter stream: http://steveblank.com/

  2. Anonymous1:05 PM

    I haven't read them yet, but I've had my eye on these two books:




Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.