Written to be changed: on project management and planning

Part of my postdoc duties at the CulturePlex Lab is managing the ongoing projects. To be fair this was already a big part of my RA job while I was still a candidate. The difference now, though, is that without the mental burden of the dissertation, a lot of my reflective thinking is going into how I can do things ‘better’ for the team and the projects, and what that ‘better’ means. So some of the factors that I’ve been considering are the things I believe to be hardest to deal with: deadlines, effective collaboration, and steady development of projects – plus a million little things embedded in each of those three and crossing over all of them. There is a lot of complexity and details within details just in the way projects get planned and many more as they move forward. Thus, I was immensely lucky when this weekend I found myself listening to Lynne Siemens talk about collaboration and project management at both the INKE project meeting and the inaugural gathering for the NYCDH group.

On Saturday, Siemens’s definition of a team as “a set of individuals who work interdependently and are jointly accountable for outcomes” clicked perfectly to how I want to think about project management. Collaboration requires a lot of “being a good colleague” personally (as in respectful and considerate) and professionally (as in committed to the team’s work) as Siemens herself explains in her “Reply all” article. Of course, the question coming out of this is whether ‘being a good colleague’ is something that happens organically or is it something that we can foster: the conclusion seems to be that collaboration does not just happen. Later on, during the coffee break we were talking about the difficulties of even planning for collaboration and how many times teams do not necessarily realize that someone (ideally someone who is not busy with everything else) needs to be facilitating team communication, monitoring project development, setting realistic and encouraging deadlines, etc.

From my experience in my current team and in others, I have observed how among members there might be a sense of overall and larger objectives and goals (publish a joint paper, organize a conference, get a grant, close a journal issue), but these might not be reflective of more immediate manageable ones. Furthermore, without a clear idea of how many steps (goals and objectives in their own right) are involved in achieving those things, it becomes close to impossible to split tasks, meet long term deadlines, and bring all of the projects’ components together into something people might be interested in. And as if that wasn’t enough, or perhaps at the bottom of it all, I have seen my own mesmerized look of confusion reflected on my colleagues’ when we are just unable to speak a common language.

In a hyperactive research team like the one I work with there are always many simultaneous projects, and they tend to feel equally urgent all the time, which we all know is, to say the least, a dizzying experience­. Immense doses of generous willingness (working on a Friday past 11pm) and a borderline healthy level of workaholism have always ensured that we finish projects, submit papers, get demos ready, etc. but I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been tense and scary moments when we weren’t sure things would work out. Because of the methodologies and approaches we follow we usually struggle with four key block stages: definition of the project (research questions, corpus and metadata design), data collection, bibliographic research and data analysis, and writing. Put in this way it seems pretty straightforward. The problem (that black hole feeling of academic work) comes when this process gets multiplied by ‘x’ number of projects –all deceivingly moving at the same time, and divided by ‘y’ number of team members – all equally busy.

This seems to be a recipe for a great nerve-racking “everything is due tomorrow”. Because of this, the question that’s been wandering around my head is: can project management strategies not only ensure project continuity and development but also make, at least, part of the academic stress go away? Or even, should project management concern itself with that or stick to the more ‘practical stuff’? I think it should aim to do both. And, of course, though I have no definitive answers to any of those questions, I do believe that the first step to be gentler on the emotional side of work while still being efficient and accountable and productive, is to prioritize projects differently, or better said, prioritize aspects of projects at different times, conclude manageable portions, and move on to the next – there’s always a next one. In order to do that, however, there needs to be a map taking into account both long and short term goals and deadlines and making it clearer for everybody where we should be focusing our individual and collective energies. I’m also convinced that every member of the team has to agree on and commit to such map so that both infrastructure and human resources are not taken up by less urgent projects – there’ll be time for them even if there’s no time. But, and this is the single most important lesson I’ve learned as a project manager, (and which was also discussed this weekend): it is key to manage change, or as Siemens put it “Keep Calm and Manage Change”. A map and a set of deadlines should not be taken as a sign of team or project inflexibility. In many cases, it might be a bit of a ‘wish list’ written down with the best intentions, but which will, without a doubt, change. Or even better, will be written to be changed.

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