The AwkEng Tries to Ask (Scientists) the Right Questions

Hi all,

Today's post is about working with scientists and finding appropriate ways to report status and drive communication in larger groups. I've done this work with engineers before, but working with scientists in this way is new to me.

The problem is that my traditional project manager approach of asking "What do I get and when do I get it?" doesn't quite work, because the scientists are often tasked with problems that are so open ended as "Can you look and see if there is a 'there' there?". The answer to my PM is question is therefore "I don't know and I don't know." Not exactly an insightful update.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, I'm experimenting with some new questions, "What have you learned and what are you still curious about?" and finding some success.

The rest of this post is details about how I picked those questions and how it's working out so far.

Background: The Tyranny of Status Reporting

I've written about status reporting before and I remain convinced that few people have been taught how to do it well, and in my experience, it's not taught in schools at all. The first failure mode is to ask for status with no further prompting, which often results in too little information, no information, or way too much. The other failure mode I've seen is the "what have you done recently and what are you doing next?" format which suffers because it becomes monotonous and boring.

Engineers are allergic to drudgery, paperwork, and status reporting, and if anything, scientists are even more so. Their typical stance is to say, "just talk to me", rather than asking for a report, but the problem is that that can be inefficient and it doesn't scale well.

The Ideal Outcome: Focused, Efficient, Value Additive

The ideal status meeting for the scientists then, would be to efficiently convey information and avoid monotony. One of the outcomes I'm looking for is also engagement from the team, meaning cross team collaboration, information sharing, and knowledge flow, as evidenced by further questions and dialog in response to a status update.

This wasn't going to happen if the meeting was dull and if people tuned out during a status meeting. My challenge was to find good prompts that would hone in on the most important information and encourage good replies.

The Analysis: What do Scientists Do?

This is a bit of a detour to the startup world, but bare with me for a moment. One analogy I've heard to describe early stage startups is that they're high speed learning machines, or at least, they're supposed to be high speed learning machines, or they'll run out of money and die before they find product market fit (and their next round of funding). Speed of iteration, and how quickly a startup and can figure out what doesn't work and get on to a path of finding something that does is what's important. So progress at a very early stage startup isn't measured by profit (after all, there is none), progress is measured by learning.

In a similar sense, we don't pay scientists to do research, we pay for the output of that research, which is learning. (And for the record, learning the 9,999 ways to not make a lightbulb is still a valuable outcome, and par for the course.)

Regardless, the insight here is that when I ran engineering projects, I didn't care about the work you did (although, deep down, on a personal level, I'm an engineer, and I do care), I cared about what I was supposed to get and when. In a similar fashion, for scientists, I don't care about the research approach, I care about what they learned.

Listening for Information in the Answer

It turns out that if you ask "What have you learned?", there's a lot pf valuable information in the answer, even if the scientists haven't learned anything yet, because you can ask why they haven't learned anything yet. It could be they're still running experiments, or cleaning up data sets, or waiting for additional input. That information is often actionable, and when people have learned something, it's often interesting, and worth sharing with the team.

So we're distilling the status update down to the most useful pieces of information! This is good stuff!

The Follow up Question

The follow up question to "What have you learned?" is then "What are you still curious about?". I like this question, because it's an open invitation to the rest of the team to think about what questions the previous round of learning raised for them, which a great driver for engagement and collaboration, in my book.

I also like the question, because it's a measure of appetite and sense of whether it's worth continuing to research in a very open ended problem space. Sometimes you learn something that makes you scratch your head and ask more questions, sometimes you learn that there's no signal in the noise, and you're running out of ideas for how to filter it, and your instincts and (lack of) curiosity are telling you to stop digging.

Thoughts So Far

I'll admit that I'm fairly early into this, but so far, I'm happy with how it's going. If any of my readers have worked in scientific organizations and had to run a team meeting, please share your thoughts!

Best regards,
Sam Feller
aka THE Awkward Engineer

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