Whenever I talk about research administration. I use images of athletes in an Olympic relay. The principal investigator crosses the finish line, but we run our laps with the PI to ensure a clean finish. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but several aspects of it are right on the money.
1. It takes a team to get the baton across the finish line.
2. The work we do has to be done fast, and accurately under pressure. We have to be able to think clearly and to perform at top speed (with a lot of demands on us). The casual observer tends to think that all that takes place is a runner, running fast. However – the speed, skill, timing, and performance required to perform under these conditions is extraordinary. The contributions of research administrators are often similarly stealth-like.
3. We depend on others to perform well and to do a good job in order to be successful in our work, and others depend on us for their successful performance. Athletes who compete in the Olympic relay are trained to only look forward – and to rely completely on their teammates to deliver the baton in their hand at the right time. They practice the hand-off over and over to ensure it is solid, and a quick takeoff to run the next leg of the race.
ARE YOU THE USAIN BOLT OF RESEARCH ADMINISTRATION?
Facilitating the process of research administration means keeping on top of follow up. It’s not easy when there are a billion things in progress, but you need to ensure that you’ve done everything possible to get your PI across the finish line, while fostering teamwork and a helpful sense of responsibility.
Practicing Relentless Follow-Up
1. Don’t wait for others to get back to you. The responsibility for follow-up is always on you. (That doesn’t mean calling every hour on the hour – be reasonable. But mark your calendar, and ensure you track your communication to get a response.)
2. Remember that people are busy. Do not be offended if you’re not receiving a response, just reach out to them again.
3. Customize your communication to ensure a response. If you know someone doesn’t read their e-mail right away – call them. Or if their preference is e-mail, do not leave a voice mail message. This creates frustration and may delay a response.
4. Eliminate barriers and facilitate the process of responding to you. Provide your contact information in your communication and ensure the person you are trying to reach knows the best time to contact you. If you want them to sign a form, attach it to the e-mail. If you are asking them about a project they need to look up, provide them with the reference numbers, so they don’t need to search for them.
5. Communicate your message very clearly, and provide the appropriate sense of urgency and direction. Here’s a tip – use a very clear and bold e-mail header (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen PI’s not respond to an e-mail because the header was gobbledygook. Try “Need your response by 5pm Monday 1/7/13.”)
Practicing Artful Hand-offs
Picking up a project in the middle of the process is a little like picking up a great book in the middle of the story and starting to read. What’s just happened? Who are the main characters? Where is the action and what’s important for me to know? When you have to learn all of this new information AND meet a deadline, it’s a lot to worry about and and lot of pressure to get right!
Your colleagues have to trust that you’ve done great work! How do you meet their expectations and help them get up to speed quickly? How do you practice artful hand-offs?
1. Do your very best work – by the book. Follow the rules and guidelines for the application you are submitting. Completing a budget in excel? Use formulas instead of hard entering your numbers. Provide detailed references. State your assumptions. Provide a cover memo with the issues and special concerns that the next person will encounter when picking up your project. Help that person step into your shoes and understand how you did the work you did.
2. If you encounter questions or barriers, try not to leave them for the next person to discover. Handle roadblocks as they arise and document your work.
3. Walk a mile in their shoes. If you know – what will the next person need to do with the work you produce? Approve it? Review it? Build on it? Use track changes to indicate how your colleague can build on what you’ve developed. Use an e-mail to help address any concerns or questions they may have in advance of a review for approval.
4. Be available and respond if there are questions. How many times have you received a project or assignment and been completely lost – and not been able to ask the person who produced it one single question? It’s essential to take responsibility for your part in a project until it’s completed, even if your part is out of your hands.
5. Remember – best alone, better together. Work done in teams is a product of people bringing their expertise and experience to a project to accomplish a common goal. Everyone has valid and important contributions to offer – and it’s a process of negotiation – between rules and processes and expertise to bring the project to the finish line. Everyone has an important part to play.
Being a trustworthy and valued team member means delivering solid hand offs when the work is hard and the timing is tight. Developing these relationships in the heat of the deadline is a valued skill, and takes hard work and dedication. But it’s worth it.
There’s always room to improve follow up skills and the artful hand-off – and these are valued skills in every aspect of our work life as research administrators, when we interact with central offices and our investigators. Starting off the New Year with a renewed effort to follow up and hand off more thoughtfully is a wise decision!
Happy New Year!