Strategies for Managing Stress and Boosting Brain Bandwidth

ConcentrationNew Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Science and Social Psychology Research Findings Help Research Administrators

If you’ve been a research administrator or financial administrator working in research administration for any length of time, you’ve figured out one thing: the tremendous pull this job has on your concentration and focus. If you’re like the talented team in my office who are performing cradle-to-grave research administration, the orientation to details, double checking formulas and worksheets, and the weight of forms and online data entry, it’s a sea of work. It’s vitally important to develop strategies to manage cognitive overload, so that you can see your work (spot errors before they are entered), think through the logic of your work process (what is required of your application or your financial process – not to perform it on autopilot), and adjust/incorporate new information in the process of managing work.

Common Strategies for Managing Stress and Maintaining Concentration

  1. Taking a break – at least once an hour for 5-10 minutes, away from your computer.
  2. Eating healthy food and snacks during the work day (my office has nuts, granola bars, green tea and popcorn to fuel hungry minds).
  3. Ask for help – reach out and have your colleagues review your work when you develop Excel blindness or are stuck on your application budget.
  4. Facilitate communication and head off surprises so that you can focus on the work at hand.

Mindfulness and Increased Attention

Harvard Social Psychologist Ellen Langer has conducted research for the last four decades on mindfulness in a variety of aspects of human life, including the performance of complex work. Langer defines “mindfulness” as the process of actively noticing new things – being actively engaged in work or life, rather than not thinking about what you are doing when you are doing it. (Think about it – it happens a lot!)

Langer contends that a mindful context for addressing complex work is identifying the best way to apply rules and guidelines given the context of a particular situation. Langer’s definition of mindlessness in complex work is “one size fits all.”

Langer has shown that mindfulness lead to better performance, increased attention, and better outcomes. In one study, she had symphony musicians, who are often bored to death with playing the same music often – play differently. One group was told to play the same as usual. The second group was told to play the same music, but to play it mindfully. It was the same music, but they brought to the performance in small and perhaps imperceptible ways, their own personal touches. However, this group of musicians were paying attention in a new way. And the results showed that this performance was rated higher.

Langer does not like checklists – she believes that they foster mindlessness (unless they trigger us to be mindful).

Strategies for Improving Mindfulness

  • Are there aspects of your work that are repetitive and boring (like reviewing workflow requests for purchasing, etc)? How can you turn these aspects of your job into something mindful, and challenging? Can you improve the process, turn it into a “game” of sorts, make it new?
  • Can you teach an aspect of your job to someone else, and in the process, become mindful of your work?
  • Is there an aspect of your work that you would like to improve (quality control)? Can you find a team member or colleague that has a similar concern and offer to provide proof reading, etc to them if they will do the same for you?

Brain “Bandwidth” – Factors Affecting Cognitive Capacity index

A team of researchers from Harvard and Princeton have conducted studies to define the effect that specific internal thoughts have on our ability to perform daily tasks. More specifically – they wanted to know if types of external and internal thoughts and experiences could distract or disrupt the cognitive capacity of individuals to such a degree that it would affect their educational achievement or work performance. The answer was yes.

Researchers have known for 40 years that external stimulus (loud repetitive noise) can affect cognitive performance. Sendil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, and Eldar Shafir, a Princeton psychologist have learned through their research studies that scarcity, an internal stimulus, can also affect cognitive bandwidth available for performing work tasks.

What is scarcity? It’s the internal monologue that occurs when an employee is worried about paying bills, an ill family member, or the cost of day care. Scarcity captures the attention of the employee – because it relates to a pressing need – and reduces attention and focus for other tasks, producing what the researchers call less “bandwidth.” They consider bandwidth to include two aspects of mental functioning – cognitive capacity (problem solving) and executive function (attention, planning and judgement).

Interestingly – it’s not just adverse circumstances that affect cognitive bandwidth. Mullainathan and Shafir found that study participants who were dieting also had bandwidth deficits.

BandwidthCultivating Cognitive Bandwidth

Develop plans and processes to manage aspects of life automatically – to free up bandwidth.

  • Sign up for automatic bill payment and an employer’s 401K plan
  • Schedule breaks and develop an exercise plan for health with a friend or personal trainer.
  • Use services to complete your grocery shopping (Peapod, etc) and stock your pantry with nutritious food. Freeze and reheat healthy meals. Have a group of friends over once a month to cook lunches for everyone to take to work (splits the work of cooking and is lots of fun).
  • If your thoughts are taking over at your desk – get up and walk around – give yourself a time limit to worry (2 minutes, 3 minutes)  and go back to your desk with a bottle of water and your mind clear.
  • Create a space at work for you to go if you need to think about something that you are worried about – or – if you need to capture your thoughts, write them down, but create a process or place where you can boundary your worry and provide yourself a space and a time that you feel better and can productively capture your thoughts and feelings in a time frame that is usable. When you get home, you can review the information and put it to work. The idea is to get the information off your mind at work so you can concentrate and feel better.
  • Most importantly – if you are having long term concerns of any kind – there are often programs through the HR office of many universities that can help you address these types of concerns raised here – use them.

In general – if something is distracting you and it’s minor – take care of it. You will be able to work more effectively if you handle what’s on your mind first. If something more significant is on your mind, and you’re having trouble focusing, it’s best to engage your supervisor to develop a plan on how to manage your work in the short term.

We now have proof that there isn’t enough Diet Coke in the world to power through the data we handle on a regular basis. It’s really important to manage our health, get regular sleep, take breaks and to use the processes here to work smarter – our institutions are counting on it.

The Fallout from October Has Just Begun: Here’s What You Need to Know

United States Capitol BuildingSHUTDOWN FALLOUT

Congress has opened its doors for business again after a two-week political roller coaster ride. The impact of this legislative hissy fit, however is still being assessed. While the media has focused on the patients in Washington DC that weren’t registered for trials at the NIH (truly a heartache) and the researchers in Antarctica and other extreme climes, research administrators have feverishly worked to meet a crushing load of November application deadlines.

In addition, research administrators and faculty have worked to assess the impact of missed application reviews on previous submissions from the last cycle, and how this will impact the upcoming review schedules. Meetings for 200 review committees scheduled for October at the NIH were canceled during the shutdown, and the impact of rescheduling these meetings (and therefore bumping the schedule of awarding these grants and holding future reviews for the upcoming cycle) is breathtakingly frightening for academic institutions across the country. Fortunately reviewers stepped forward and have volunteered to make time to participate (as institutions like the NIH originally announced revised schedules several months out, causing widespread alarm). NIH reviews are resuming in January instead of May.

NEW PAYMENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM AT NIH

As if the shutdown didn’t give us enough excitement to manage, we are looking to the new NIH payment images (1)management system which is going into effect as we speak. The new payment management system is a process that accomplishes 2 things. First, it allows the NIH to transition current domestic awards from PMS pooled accounts (type G) to a new type of account called a PMS type G subaccount. Second, it will allow the NIH to award all new grants and contracts as the PMS type G subaccount and allow the agency to administer all awards with new payment management rules.

Starting in November, notices of award will list the type of award (type P or G). To facilitate the transfer process, the NIH will transfer new awards into the new PMS system in FY14 (which has already started. In FY15, the NIH will transfer continuing awards.

hound dogSome changes to the management of awards and closeouts have already taken place, and if you don’t know about them, you should:

1. Depending on your institution’s standard operating procedures, the NIH policy previously afforded additional time for reconciling and closing out the award before completing the annual or final financial report. The new policy requires that awards be ready for closeout at the end of the award period for a prompt production of the annual or final financial report. If your expenses have not hit the proper account when they were supposed to, you will not have enough time to fix it at the end of the budget period or award period.

2. As awards shift from the old to the new payment system, competitive segments will be shortened for one year and new awards will be given new identifiers on the NOA. Get ready for some fancy footwork – tracking and reporting on these awards will be F-U-N.

3. Prepare to bid goodbye to unliquidated obligations from previous award segments/periods. Either encumber funds, and use them, or plan to lose them at the end of the budget period. PERIOD. The new FFR format calls out the unexpended balance from prior project period right up front. (They might as well call it “funds to cut from this project budget”).

4. Automatic carry forward can be requested – but funds are not permitted to be drawn down until they are formally approved and appear on the new NOA. (Read between the lines: carry forward isn’t so automatic anymore.)

These new requirements require a laser focus on direct charging salary to sponsored projects, and encumbering salary and project expenses appropriately to awards. Research administrators need to reconcile projects on a monthly basis to ensure that charges are hitting correctly to have the grants and contracts awarded to their investigators managed to a successful close.

AN END TO SEQUESTRATION?

Congress is talking now about how they will come together in January to pass a budget – and believe it or not, they are talking about adjusting the terms of the sequester. It’s hard to believe that sequestration is back on the table (for more information about sequestration, check out my previous post). Everyone seems to agree that the across-the-board cuts have been a disaster, but, as you can guess, nobody in Congress agrees on a way to restore cuts in a fashion that can be voted on to pass in both the House and the Senate. (Does this sound familiar?) While it would be fantastic to have improvements in sequestration funding, and there appears to be bi-partisan support for doing so, this seems to be linked to passing a budget in January, and if that is the case, I’d put money on the likelihood of another government shutdown.

The DOD would be a likely target for increased funding (relief of sequestration) but its hard to tell how the NSF, NIH, FDA or other agencies would fare given the history of divisiveness that exists.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  1. Assess your investigators’ research portfolios now; analyze your investigators’ salary and effort plans using the proposed data and effort certified to project out their current commitments if you haven’t already done this.
  2. Analyze the salary and effort of staff in the laboratories or on the projects that your investigators support.
  3. Assess the status of your investigators’ applications, if possible, to know where they are in the pipeline. Create a projection based on likelihood of funding, planned applications and current funding.
  4. Work with faculty and staff to assess potential gaps in funding for your faculty and staff. Begin to plan and request appropriate resources to cover faculty and staff salary and research during any time when the faculty member is not covered by sponsored funding.
  5. Create a budget and plan to support the request, and work with the faculty member and his/her department to request support.
  6. Assess institutional resources available to submit new applications early – should it be that we face additional gridlock in DC. Plan with your investigators to do this, if possible. (Adios, December!)
  7. Keep an eye on DC politics – and hope that this time around it’s not as bad. (Check out these resources from my previous post.)

By using our unique resources and perspective, we can help our institutions support the faculty and staff that are performing research in a wide variety of fields that make our world a better place to live. This is a really tough time, and we need to step up and make it possible for the research community to concentrate on their work – and not on the political struggles in Washington.

Preparation Nation: Shut Down Week 3 – What Happens Now?

Fiscal Cliff 2I’m following the latest on the back and forth negotiations in Washington DC on my iPad like a devotee of Scandal (or Breaking Bad for you guys out there). Will they or won’t they? Who is doing what to whom? When will they open the government? Are we going over the cliff? Oh the drama!

It would be entertaining – if it weren’t so high stakes for the scientists doing research around the world. And not just for the graduate student who traveled all the way from Boston to Antarctica and had to travel all the way home again once he got there (because his research project was cancelled during his trip). Scientists are reporting that the shutdown is having a devastating impact on the ability to obtain specimens, recruit participants, and collect and analyze data – which could set back research in a variety of fields from months to years. You can tap in to conversations that researchers are having online on Reddit here. (Note the team that is working at the South Pole!) You can also follow #shutscience on twitter for more stories from scientists who are on experiencing the shutdown’s devastating impact on their work.

The Status of Negotiations

While it appears that Congress and the President are making some headway towards an agreement that will keep us away from the fiscal cliff (and perhaps negotiating a budget to open the government in the meantime) they will need to achieve that in the next three days. If memory serves, this Congress likes to take us to the last second, we’ll see. If you’d like to track the status of discussions in Washington, a few helpful resources include a visual guide to the negotiations; a series of articles on the shutdown and its impact on science, and to remind us what we’ve lost in all of this, a tally of what the shutdown has cost.

The Washington Post has a live update on the negotiations on their website if you can stomach the roller coaster ride.

Resources To Keep Going During The Shutdown

You may have already figured out some quick fixes when the NSF, NIH and other government websites went dark. Google cache is one easy way to find program announcements, RFAs and access to other website pages that are currently unavailable. There are other homegrown websites and links (see resources above) with additional links and documents. While Federal government agencies have stopped accepting applications (you can submit to grants.gov, but they won’t reach the agency, so most agencies have said not to submit)  preparations for completing grant submissions should continue on schedule.

However, we are learning from NCI Director Howard Varmus just how long it may take for most Federal agencies to come back on-line after the shut down is over.

When the Shutdown is Over

By law, Federal employees had to vacate the premises and leave behind their work computers and devices on the last day of the fiscal year. The shut down was completed within 1/2 day (in reality, I’m sure most agencies saw it coming and were prepared for some time).

Since then, we’ve not heard much, until now, about how the shutdown is affecting agencies and their ability to fund and manage research and how things might work after the shutdown is over. This memo from Harold Varmus gives us a leg up on how we can get ready for questions from our investigators – and as you’d suspect, the news isn’t great. Large and small agencies are going to have a tough time catching up from just a couple of weeks – and as we know, these weeks contained crucial grant and contract deadlines.

We’ll be ready to submit applications, but the systems to accept them will have to be ready for every application, all at once. Grant review meetings will need to be rescheduled as quickly as possible – and all of the missed deadlines and missed meetings will have a cascading effect on upcoming deadlines for every type of extramural application. All of these activities depend on hundreds, if not thousands of faculty and staff altering their plans to participate in rescheduled reviews to bring the process back on-line.

And the longer we’re waiting, the worse the problem becomes.

What Can You Do to Help Your Investigators?

As most program officers are unavailable (they have been furloughed) it’s important to keep up with the latest news in Washington to identify potential impact on your investigator’s research.

  1. Talk to your investigator regularly to determine his/her concerns – a lot of investigators have concerns that are time-dependent. (If the shutdown lasts until X date, I’ll be fine, but if it goes until Y date, this will happen…)
  2. Read academic media to learn what your investigator’s colleagues are doing to cope in the face of the shutdown.
  3. Discuss fiscal strategies for managing research projects given a delayed payment cycle – if you have projects that are in the process of being renewed, how will your investigator manage with his/her current budget?
  4. Investigate available institutional resources, if you’re that fortunate, for these types of situations. Perhaps you can pool institutional resources to care for animals, or share staffing to keep gathering data, etc.
  5. Talk to central offices about what they are hearing regarding the shutdown, and how you can prepare for next steps.
  6. If you find something that was especially effective to assist your investigator in weathering the storm, remember what you did, because you’ll need to do it again in six months!

Remember – expect the worst – and hope for the best, and maybe we’ll end up somewhere in between.

Capitol Hill Showdown: What Will October Bring?

preparationI don’t know about you, but when I’m working on an application deadline, I’d like to think about helping my investigator submit a quality application – not whether the government will be open for business to accept the application on the due date.

Unfortunately, it’s mid-September, so that means our elected officials are squabbling again about whether or not they’d like to fund the federal government through the end of the calendar year.

Unfortunately, this political tango has very real consequences for scientific research – both the currently funded kind, and the research in-need-of-support kind. And for this go-around, we have another hurdle to face with an anticipated battle over the definition and scope of the debt ceiling. Our national legislators are seeking to tie this discussion to other mandates, such as reducing or eliminating funding for the Affordable Care Act, or adjusting the terms of sequestration. Regardless of the outcome, the effect is likely to create uncertainty in federal agencies, and if it goes on too long, could lead to belt-tightening.

This drama is likely to play out during the last few days of September, when Congress considers legislation to fund the President’s 2014 budget, or not. For the past 5 years, we have funded the government on continuing resolutions, which are a series of appropriations bills that have passed both houses of Congress and been authorized to fund the nation’s work for a period of time (from weeks to months, to a year). These appropriations bills are sometimes cobbled together and approved in chunks.

After we pass the first hurdle of keeping the government running (and can submit our applications), we must address the debt ceiling hurdle – which has a decision deadline of October 15, after which the Federal government goes into default on its financial obligations, and cannot pay its bills, such as student loans and Social Security checks. There is some discussion that prudent management of the deficit has given the Treasury some wiggle room for the November 1 pay period, but agencies that have “discretionary” payments are already starting to look at the next couple of months and plan for a battle in Washington.

The political environment is even more complicated – a primary election underway in the state of Kentucky has effectively silenced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a more moderate force between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate (as was the case during the last debt ceiling debate in 2011). Similarly, House Speaker John Boehner is in a difficult position between a very conservative wing in the House that is attempting to de-fund Obamacare as a condition for raising the debt ceiling and keeping the government open – which if the government shuts down, may cost him his Speakership.

What does this mean for research administrators?

If you are waiting for a non-competing continuation, a subcontract, or a notice of award – don’t hold your breath. Everyone is going to be in a holding pattern until this is sorted out. If your investigator decides to start work, be prepared to open pre-spending accounts, and direct charge expenses (conservatively) until you know what your funding will look like. Encourage your investigators to talk to their program officers and get a read on what’s going on at their funding agency. Monitor activity and costs closely to manage potential cost share commitments until funding comes through. Keep your PI’s and departments updated on developments – and while you’re at it, load up on the antacid.

Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

How Many People Does It Take To Allocate An Expense To A Sponsored Project?

ideaWhen Your Office’s Cost Allocation Processes  Resemble the Punchline of that Familiar Joke, it’s Time to Take a Look at Your Decision Methods

We recently had a situation in our office where a question was raised about the method of allocating an allowable supply cost to a sponsored project. The supply cost was $30. The “answer” generated more than one week’s worth of discussion involving the time of eight employees in three different offices. In other words, more than $30 worth of F&A was spent on deciding whether or not it could or should be charged as a direct cost on the award. (It was direct charged, and it should have been, it was the right thing to do.)

You’ve Hammered The Nail Down. How Many More Times Do You Need To Hit It?

This is not a discussion about whether or not we want to be compliant – this is a discussion about the BEST way to be compliant. The reality is, that there is often MORE than one way to allocate costs in a compliant manner, and the fact of the matter is that we can allocate costs as effectively as possible, following all the rules and guidelines provided by the funding agency and OMB circulars – and an auditor can still request to remove the charge for a particular reason on an audit. (They may, or may not be successful.) At the end of the day, we need to realize that we are going to make the best decisions possible, according to policies, decide who is responsible for decision making, and move on. So how do we do this, and how can we avoid the black and white thinking that so often comes along with cost allocation processes – and makes the process so PAINFUL and time consuming?

A Starting Place for Understanding Cost Allocation: Three Questions

1. Who decides if the charge goes on the award, and who reviews/approves this decision?

It’s been my experience that the best cost allocation decisions are made at the department level – they are usually initiated by the investigator, and followed up on by a research administrator, who determines how best to allocate the cost to the award – and confirms this with the investigator. The RA might consult with a central office, but a central office role is usually to review and approve the charge once it is placed on the award, and that’s the appropriate role for the central office. It’s good to make sure we’re charging the award appropriately before we’ve touched it – but the local department knows more about the research and how the award is being conducted. The investigator also knows their program officer’s expectations, and grants management officer’s guidelines about how the award should be spent.

2. What information helps guide the decision making process?

The OMB circulars, the award documentation, and the agency guidance regarding allowable costs, as well as institutional policies and procedures regarding cost allocation. Whew! That’s a lot of information that is sometimes contradictory – so where do you start? The most specific guidance for the award pertains first.

3. What documentation supports the decision, and how is this documentation generated and maintained?

There is nothing WORSE than cost allocation processes that are not consistently followed – think A21. Following processes that document purchasing, and the allocation of costs on awards and document these costs consistently so that administrators can follow your thought processes are vital (everything from always using formulas in Excel spreadsheets to entering in justifications to every computer system that you use to execute financial transactions).

Fundamental Knowledge for Successful Cost Allocation

  • The research administrator needs to know the units for accepting costs (this sounds trivial and simple, but it really is quite important). Are costs to be allocated by project, lab, employee, etc?
  • Roles need to be maintained – it is surprising how often central office staff regularly allocate costs to account codes that are inappropriate or feel that they know best how to allocate costs, when they know little about the research itself or the cost item being allocated.
  • The consistency principle for A21 should be (in my opinion) maintained by research unit – similar types of research. Again, this is something that departments know better than central offices – allocation of expenses for wet labs is going to be different than allocation of expenses for dry labs, or clinical research labs. Explaining this to a central office accountant is important to ensure the correct allocation method for the sponsored research account.
  • Allowability and reasonableness are usually easier terms to work through, based on the award information.

When in Doubt – Double Check and Documentgroup-of-small-business-people

If you have a particularly unusual situation, work with your investigator to talk with your central office, and his or her grants management specialist about the question to receive approval. Document the decision if it is favorable. It’s still no guarantee – but it’s a good indication that it’s an allowable cost. Document all of the justification material and correspondence for future reference.

The Best Defense Is A Good Offense

As always, the investigator is always in the best position to support his or her cost allocations when the budget and budget justification are well developed in the proposal stage, and his or her progress reports, financial reports, and updates are well tracked and presented. Our cost allocation decisions should make sense, and be defensible when we are asked about them by our internal and external auditors. And it shouldn’t take a village to allocate the cost of a $30 item to a sponsored project – because there’s more work to be done!

Which Comes First? Business Administration or Research Administration?

FORTUNATELY, THE CHICKEN AND EGG QUESTION HAS BEEN DEFINITIVELY ADDRESSED BY SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH.

You might think that we’d start off this discussion of research and business administration with a metaphor that has no actual scientific answer – and I’m happy to say that we seem to know which came first. The chicken.

So can we answer the question at hand – business administration or research administration? Which comes first? I think we can.

Research administrators cannot operate successfully in the world of academics and medicine without business administrators first performing their essential responsibilities. It’s that simple. Business administration comes first. It is true that there are complex and close interactions, but at the end of the day, when it comes down to it, in order for research administrators to do their jobs successfully, business administrators first have to do their work well.

EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT THIS HYPOTHESIS:

  1. Faculty appointments and position funding are the responsibility of business administrators, and managed jointly with research administrators due to their impact on effort reporting and sponsored research compliance.
  2. Business administrators manage department accounts that cover “over the cap” salary cost-sharing, the portion of administrative time that PI’s cannot cover on grants, the funds that are available to cover research staff who are not fully funded on grants. Without business administrators managing department funds successfully (and these days, carefully) investigators could not keep staff employed and research administrators would not be able to manage sponsored projects successfully.
  3. The process of ordering and accepting supplies, equipment and services is a business administration function that impacts sponsored research. Business administration staff often consult with research administration to check on an order placed by a lab tech or a research assistant to make sure that the costs are being allocated correctly, but these business staff are directing the purchasing process in order for the research administration team to later reconcile the purchases with the investigator.

While these processes are intricately related, we know now that – like the chicken and the egg – one is  present before the other. It is also important to realize that, like the chicken and the egg, business administrators and research administrators need to support and work together to ensure a successful outcome.

What happens when you make a mistake?

I’m re-reading Atul Gawande’s fabulous book The Checklist Manifesto. If you haven’t read it, you need to get a copy. It’s a real page turner. The book discusses the complex work of surgeons, airline pilots, construction workers and others who competently perform their jobs, acknowledging one fact – that a mistake they make can cost a life – even their own. The author strips away the need to assign blame and fault (it’s counterproductive and unhelpful) and outlines a path for understanding why mistakes are made and how to prevent as many of them as possible. Gawande’s prescription, as you can probably guess, is the use of checklists. What you may find interesting, however, is his description of the checklist implementation process in hospitals and other healthcare settings, where nurses and other professionals challenge the physician-centric culture and ask whether a physician has washed her hands, or if he is making the incision in the correct appendage. Great stuff! Shows that it’s hard for all of us to admit we make mistakes. But necessary and life saving.

Research administration is complex work, but it does not have the immediate impact of heart or brain surgery. We are not landing planes, and in this we are fortunate. If we make a mistake, most times we are afforded the luxury of being able to address it and ameliorate its effects. The Management Craft blog has a fantastic post about making mistakes, and how to handle making a mistake as responsibly as possible. What I liked most about this post was the importance of treating others how you’d like to be treated when you make a mistake – which calls to mind the importance of creating an institutional culture which values integrity and honesty. Revealing errors and dealing with them quickly is vital in our profession, in order to maintain the integrity of the research enterprise.

New York Times post highlights the cost of not revealing an error – simply from a business perspective. Can you imagine, from a sponsored research point of view, if a “bag purchase” equivalent were ignored for as long, what the result would be? We need to praise our colleagues for recognizing errors, especially early on, to view them as symptoms to diagnose the systems that need fixing. When we recognize our own mistakes and ask for help, we are creating an organizational culture that values learning, integrity and problem solving. It also gives us the opportunity to share information – so that everyone is updated on new information or a more effective way to address a process or procedure.

In managing sponsored research resources, we realize that our work impacts the careers of our investigators, the safety of research participants, and the ability of our institutions to obtain and conduct sponsored research. The ability of research administrators to successfully – and with integrity – administer sponsored projects is at the heart of an institution’s research program.

Five things you can do right now to create a problem solving workplace:

1. Identify your team mates.

Everyone needs a fresh pair of eyes to check their work or someone to double check their budget before turning it in. Who is on your team? Identify at least one or two more people who will check your work when you are tired, or stressed so that you’ll know those silly mistakes will be caught before you turn your application in to the funder, or your progress report in to the foundation.

2. Admit your faults.

Where are your weak spots? No matter what you do, you always misspell certain words. Or particular formulas in Excel are hard to remember, or whatever it is – name it. Then create a solution that addresses the stress around this problem. Chances are you have repeated “mistakes” (financial, grammatical, etc) around these areas. Can you create a cheat sheet? Can your team mate catch the error? Can you use spell check?

3. Improve your planning.

Mistakes occur when there’s not enough time to budget, write, meet with investigators, heck – fill in the blank. Use your time management skills to guide investigators through the process of applying for grants, completing progress reports, etc. so that there are enough days and hours to get everything done without working until midnight strung out on coffee. (Granted, there’s only so much we can do without mind-control powers, but we can try!)

4. Ask for help.

It’s strange – sometimes, especially with very overpowering investigators, many of us want to sound like we know the answer to everything because it seems like that’s what the investigator wants. It’s ok to say you don’t know, but you’re going to find out. Just say when you’ll follow up and make sure you do it. Then ask for help – and get the answers you need.

5. Change one thing.

Can you see a pattern? Is there one issue that occurs often enough where you can identify a way to address a solution? Looking at the steps that occur in the chain of events that leads up to and after a mistake can help you identify an opportunity to change the outcome. Success is a powerful motivator.