Management Competencies

In this article we introduce the concept of management competencies+. We seek to better understand the nature of competence in the management of researchers in creative endeavors. Competence is something to be striven for. It’s not innate. It’s not something you finish. It’s a life-long attitude that admits humbleness in the ability to move others in the direction you intend, especially in the tumultuous, ever-changing environment of industrial R&D. We seek commitment to the continuous pursuit of effectiveness in R&D.

There are no easy answers to instill management competencies into managers of our research units. Individuals need to admit incompetency, a very difficult admission, before they can allow themselves to grow into competent managers. This four-step approach is at least as old as St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. It shows up in many self-help groups (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous) and management coaching seminars. This image for this article comes from this coaching website and is courtesy of Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007.
This is not a mechanical competency. We’re not looking for excellence in performance appraisals, dismissals, incentives or other activities often tagged as management practices. Instead we seek a competency in taking one’s personal understanding of the nature of effectiveness and making it come alive in the actions of the research team. There is no formula. The approach is unique for the manager and for the team being managed. As such, there is no mechanical approach, no checklist to be followed.

We’re talking about management of the research unit, the hundred or so individuals comprising the research team. Our competency must be in setting up the work structures in a way that allows the greatest effectiveness to come out of the greatest number of individuals. This should work autonomously. It drives effectiveness for most of the researchers most of the time.

This is not a competency in the management of the individual. We’re talking about overall team management and not those ‘difficult conversations’.

I don’t know how we’re going to be able to do this without you. Vice President of Operations (2002). Personal Communication on how to gain buy-in from a reluctant team member

We build a work setting that allows individuals to be creative, self-motivated, passionate and driven, even when they’re not being watched. We take care of the exceptions on an exceptional basis.

Competency comes from the manager’s ability to probe the nature of effectiveness in his or her team, and in his or her ability to get the team to share this understanding of effectiveness. We need believers and the manager’s role is to preach the gospel. There are no mandated mechanical activities. There are no hard-and-fast rules you expect researchers to follow. Instead, there are beliefs and values you share. True believers know the actions (or limitations) expected of them depending on the circumstances.

Case Study 1: I mistrust evidence based on generalized reasoning. I ask about the medical history and outcome of each and every one of our clinical trial patients. I tend to fund animal or human trials of six or so subjects more readily because I want my researchers to tell me what they think, and not to rely on numerical averages as a crutch. I pay attention to the outliers: why certain test subjects did not respond in a way we expected. This comes from my belief about effectiveness in evidence gathering, but this is not a hard and fast rule. I know there will be exceptions but I don’t know beforehand where these exceptions will surface. I don’t shut out generalized thinking by my systems modelers or statisticians. Team members quickly learn the best way to engage my interest is to talk about the particulars. They are quick to caveat evidence based on generalizations: “I know you don’t like percentages, but these numbers are really worth a look…”

Case Study 2: It’s illegal for pharmaceutical sales representatives to promote off-label use of drugs, but is it illegal to point a physician to an article by a key opinion leader discussing said use? What about mentioning the key opinion leader’s name, being well aware the top five hits in Google will lead to the same article? I’m not going to write down a set of rules which can later be depositioned in a class action lawsuit. But I’m well aware legal precedent, the law, is a generalization of many court cases each with very specific circumstances: many times there is fuzziness around the edges of the legal opinion. My sales representatives know it’s perfectly legal (and beneficial for patients) when physicians prescribe our drug for medical conditions not found on the label. They also know many lawsuits have been successfully filed against pharmaceutical firms for off-label promotion of drugs. Don’t ask me the answer to the above questions.

Managers take up high level beliefs, figure out how to make them workable, and then figure out how to get the project team to adopt them as their own. It’s a deliberate activity. Managers judge themselves on their success in getting these high level beliefs inculcated into the broader team. There are no predefined yardsticks. R&D productivity comes from the collaboration of many different individuals with many different personalities. Beliefs and the ability to change beliefs vary. In creative endeavors you don’t force beliefs: legalistic+ behaviors are anathema to effectiveness. Gaining consensus can be a very long-term and fitful effort.

We seek an admission of humbleness from our managers. Effectiveness is not found by following a set formula. Everyone on the team must step forward at the same time. If a few individuals stay back then effectiveness does not result. We need the means to allow individuals to practice stepping forward, so they’ll be ready when the big moment arrives; when everyone is ready to take the step. Our competency in management must recognize there will be many false (i.e., practice) steps. There will always be more insights into the nature of effectiveness to be gleaned and more techniques for building these insights into the daily work of a research unit.

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