Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Recovering project enthusiasm

I was talking to my research students the other day about the doldrums; that patch of equatorial still air, where sailing ships stalled in the midst of their journeys from the northern hemisphere to the southern. I was using it as a metaphor for stalling in our research projects. I realised after the lecture that I forgot to give them two key pieces of advice.

When we get into a project, everything can be going along swimmingly, and then a combination of circumstances can derail us. Where we were once making steady progress, we now stall. Or where we thought we had a good plan, it turns out there are gaps that we hadn't accounted for at the outset. Perhaps a key piece of data becomes difficult to get, or we get an unexpected delay on being able to start our primary data gathering. Sometimes it is simply a combination of who we are outside our research project that suddenly makes the project overwhelming.

This thing, that I called lostness, is something that happens regularly. And by regularly, I mean probably at least once in every research project. I think the main reason for lostness is that each research project has to be developed from the ground up, by us. There is no tick box template that we can follow to find the right way in to finding our research question, for gathering our data, and then for managing our write up: we have to create our project anew, from whole cloth, each time.

While I have written about lostness before (here, here, and here), it never hurts to have another visit to the antithesis of lostness: Strategy Land! There are a number of strategies that we can put in place to help us when we get lost, but there are two I favour. The first process is to have honest conversations about being lost. We need to develop a really strong and honest relationship with our research supervisor, or, if that is not possible, get  an outside mentor who can fill this function for us. When we start to feel lost, we book a meeting to discuss why, and to come up with strategies to get us back on track. I personally find that this is probably the best way of managing lostness. The power of supervisor conversations ties in with work done by Adam Grant at the Wharton Business School, where five minutes spent talking to a client about why we are doing our job reinvigorates us and helps us key back in to our KPIs (Fanning, 8 August 2017).

Secondly, we need to have a really detailed research plan worked out ahead of time. We need to detail what we are doing, on what days, at what times, and for how long, from the outset of our project. These  blocks of time and tasks need to be in our diaries, and we need to be disciplined about not taking them off until the job is done. Really thorough planning will help keep us moving when we're lost, as, if you are task oriented, we like to get things ticked off our diary task lists. Having everything in our diary, and chunked down into small segments, will help to keep us making progress until we come out of the doldrums (read more about planning here, here and here).

So, we need two key tools: our supervisor, and a plan. They will comfort us always!


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