08 June 2011

Rotational Management

In most universities and many (but not all) of Federal government science agencies, there is a practice called rotational management.  The theory behind this is that in order to manage scientists, you must be a scientist.  This is so that you can hold their respect without beating up on people (an extremely inefficient way to manage), but also so that you can understand what your scientists do - so you can help them do it more effectively.  There's another paradigm out there: that you don't really need to understand what your scientists are doing, you just need to be a leader.  No, that doesn't make sense to me, either, and I've noticed that scientists operating under this sort of paradigm generally just ignore the management... and hold it in deep contempt.

I've seen two management styles in the USGS.  One style I would call collaborative - this is what I practice during my rotational management assignments. I find that when everyone works to set the goals together, they all feel some degree of ownership of those goals - and naturally work that much harder.  Scientists living under this style of management are also happier - and naturally more productive as a result.

I've seen a few examples of what I would call totalitarian management.  The most egregious example was one where an individual had a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince on his desk (in the original Italian), and openly stated that to be an effective manager one had to use intimidation and fear.  He actually lasted as a manager for several years, until it became clear to everyone including his boss that he could no longer hold things together.

I've chalked the few examples of this latter style to inexperience - a scientist who has never managed and suddenly finds herself or himself floundering may reflexively do this.  Also, I've seen several cases where a formerly decent person, when they feel they have some power over others, undergo a weird personality change.  In two cases, I've seen this style develop in a team or science center when a sociopathic individual somehow was selected as the next leader.

You can guess how things might play out under these two different kinds of leadership. There is an old expression I've heard: "teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves." 

During the 2004 eruption of Mount St Helens in Washington State, people moved cots into their offices to sleep and were working 18 - 20 hour days to monitor the volcano (which killed 57 people in 1980).  They felt they were actually doing something to help their country, to protect their fellow citizens.  When the Secretary of the Interior visited the day after the first atmospheric blast on 1 October 2004, she held a press conference which I conducted.  After the formal part was over, reporters stuck microphones in the faces of the senior scientists and Interior managers present, including me, standing next to my boss's boss's boss.  One radio reporter asked me "What's it like leading a group of high-powered scientists like this?"

I stepped back off the sidewalk into the bushes behind me and replied "I've learned to get out of the way so I don't get run over."

That's why rotational management - when it's done collaboratively - works so well.  I cannot imagine how you would otherwise get 80 people present in the Cascades Volcano Observatory at the time to work 186 hours in a single two week stretch (this happened).


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