Tuesday, February 5, 2008

On starting new research laboratories

These are very busy times for me and I have not been able to keep up with what is happening outside my window, down in the Valley. So here are some musing useful to research managers forming new laboratories.

Our brains are not pre-wired. Although we are born with a structural scaffolding, synaptic connections are created as long as we learn. There is evidence that at the onset of puberty the brain — by then a knotted tangle of neuronal axons — may get reorganized by replacing convoluted connections with more direct ones, a highly individual process that appears to end with puberty. This entails that we are all different, because we all have different experiences, and even when we share the same experiences, we reorganize them differently and therefore our thinking patterns are different.

Nevertheless, our thinking patterns can be grouped in a small number of cognitive styles. Understanding these styles is important for a hiring manager, because once a person with the wrong style is hired, it cannot be changed and a conflict situation is created. Or, when in a reorganization a new manager-worker diad is created, a conflict arises when the manager expects a different cognitive pattern than the worker has. In real life, managers cannot tatoo their worker's tonsils, nor make mercenaries of them, as some executives dream (see post of 6 March 2007).

A first cognitive style is that of thinking in parallel, like in a computer it would be implemented with an associative memory. People with this cognitive style are good at extrapolating and therefore make good mathematicians, scientists and artists. They also tend to be self-motivated and can drive a micro-manager crazy because they always have to go to the ground of things.

A second cognitive style is that of thinking serially, like in a computer it would be implemented with a pipeline. People with this cognitive style are good at interpolating and therefore make good engineers and designers. They also tend to be great listeners and are grateful for any outer input that allows them to work more efficiently.

A third cognitive style is that of recognizing the action item of the moment and execute it, like in a computer would be a scheduler. People with this style are very flexible and are good at quickly solving the emergency of the moment; they make good consultants and sales people. They work very well in a situation like an emergency room, were they can quickly triage patients, treat them, and completely tune out when they go home.

I am sure there are more cognitive styles, but I did not think about it and I am not versed in psychology; this is all I have to deal with in my ordinary life.

Some people have the capability to bridge two cognitive styles, and these are the people that are most valuable. For example, when I was working in CSL at PARC, when we were hiring we were considering only people that excelled both in coming up with new science and in reducing it to practice. We called these people speculative designers.

leadership and creative professions

As I wrote in my post of 3 March 2007, today's research labs are more interested in entrepreneurial researchers, i.e., those that can straddle engineering and marketing.

To finish where I started, managers should appreciate the different cognitive styles and employ their subalterns accordingly, only so can managers build a successful organization that will support them and make them successful. The managers who will try to mold their employees to their own style will fail.

the manager with his employees

The activity of a researcher is to invent. Invention is not a logical process; as Kleist interpreted Kant’s critique of the pure reason, the world you see through a pair of green spectacles is a concomitant and independent view of a same truth. Most of all, invention requires phantasy and the free spinning of ideas. Research managers must see in their employees a good balance between the homo ludicus and the homo sapiens, between otium (leisure) and its negation: negotium .

The manager has to see in the subaltern scientist the ability to have an intuition and to also bring it to fruit. A well-honored intuition and the ability to trust it are essential tools for doing research. However, all too often the only application of the intuition is to build pies in the sky or Luftschlösser. Some researchers consider the expression of their ideas in a publication to be their final product. In a good laboratory researchers believe that the ability to reduce ideas to practice is at least as important; it is essential if they want to empower people.

Yet, they do not want to be the slaves of ephemeral “marketeers”; by empowering people, researchers mean that they want to shift paradigms, invent disruptive technologies, discover emergent properties. To shift paradigms scientists attempt to pose and answer basic questions that can lead to fundamental breakthroughs. A laboratory's competitive edge depends on its ability to invent radically new approaches to computing and its uses, and then “sell” these rapidly to the engineering groups. Good research laboratories look for a commitment to solving real problems in the real world. Their focus is on technology in use, and people there are passionate about seeing their ideas embedded in products that shape the way people work, think, interact, and create.

This is different from what goes on in engineering or many less successful research labs, where the focus is on improving current technology and advancing the status quo. Researchers who had taken a job somewhere else, when they embarked on a project they would probably have had a pretty good idea of how and when their work would pay off. The problems they would have addressed would be well defined. They would have helped improve computer technology state-of-the-art by going one step farther along a well-plotted path.

In a well-managed research group there is no plotted path. The problems researchers in a good lab work on will be the ones they help to invent. When researchers embark on a new project, they will have to be prepared to go in directions they could not have predicted at the outset. They will be challenged to take risks and to give up cherished methods or beliefs in order to find new approaches. They will encounter periods of deep uncertainty and frustration when it will seem that their efforts are leading nowhere.

This is why following their instinct is so important. Only by having deep intuitions, being able to trust them, and knowing how to run with them will they be able to keep their bearings and guide themselves through unchartered territory. The ability to do research that gets to the root is what separates merely good researchers from world-class ones. The former are reacting to a predictable future; the latter are enacting a qualitatively new one.

Going to work in a good laboratory, researchers are sacrificing the security of a safe approach in which they can count on arriving at a predictable goal. But they have the opportunity to express their personal research “voice” and help to create a future that would not have existed without them.