The Dance of Strangers: leading research teams

by Tom Irvine

1tmobile_flashmob_1At the end of July I attended our bi-annual event for our programme directors where I got talking to the inspirational leader of our Research Team Leadership programme – Dr David Faraday. This evolving and changing programme continues to be astonishing – we have run this 2-day programme more than 50 times now, mainly as an in-house leadership programme for early career research leaders. The feedback from the Research Team Leaders is just amazing.

David and I got talking about the many challenges that leaders of research projects face in a world where inter-agency, inter-disciplinary and often inter-national research projects hope to thrive. We mused that research projects rarely fail for want of the necessary technical expertise, knowledge or application. The funding review processes are generally excellent at establishing that these elements are in place and the competition drives up the quality of the applications in these areas. However, there are many examples of projects which do fail, or are less successful than they should be.

David recalled two projects in which he was involved that under-delivered due to failures in management, leadership and/or communication. The first, a major EU grant which included 10 partners – 2 academic and 8 industrial – spread over 5 nations; one of the industrial partners was the lead organisation. The first problem was clarifying the leadership. Although the lead organisation was one of the industrial partners, the individual in charge changed more than once. But, even more problematic, it become clear early on in the project that the lead organisation was not really prepared to (or capable of) taking on that role and was expecting one of the academic institutions to do it. This wasn’t allowed under the funding rules, but the industrial partner had the purse strings and the institution was committed having recruited a team of three post docs for two years to work on the project. This resulted in a complex and very ineffective leadership structure for the project and real problems arose when it came to decision- making, especially when all the partners were involved. In the end, despite all of this, there was some high research output and most of the industrial partners were very happy. However, the delivery could have been much more impactful. Issues similar to this are frequently discussed on the Research Team Leadership programme, where academics describe how they are grappling with leading multi-partner/institution projects

The second case concerned a principal investigator. The nub of the problem here was – in David’s words – simply based on the PI’s inability to effectively lead and manage a very talented, but highly independent post doc. David said: “The post doc was young and enthusiastic, as was the PI. But the PI was inexperienced at the time, particularly in being able to keep their post doc focussed on the core task specified in the proposal. His boundary setting was good, but his ability to maintain those boundaries and have the ‘difficult conversations’ was poor – needless to say the PI learnt a lot!”

This particular issue comes up in one form or another on almost every Research Team Leadership we do. Often we find that researchers spread themselves too thinly as they have too many concurrent research commitments. Ultimately, the research output from these projects can be much less than planned for, even if the technical quality remains high.

If these cases resonate with you then you may find it useful to talk these issues through with David Faraday. He’s great at tailoring the RTL programme to the needs of an institution – and has run a whole series of programmes at institutions such as Cardiff and Birmingham.

Tom Irvine leads the Leadership Foundation’s consulting team, full details on all the Leadership Foundation’s research programmes can be found here: Research Programmes.