Leading a productive research group | University of Oxford

Leading a productive research group

Dr Bill Dunn, Oxford Learning Institute

Leading a productive research group

Many factors affect how productive a research team is, from organisational factors such as the level of internal support to deal with potentially distracting bureaucracy, to external factors such as the flexibility of your grant,to personal factors such as your commitment and drive. But what about the environmental factors that wrap around a research group and shape its effort and response? This is something you ignore at your peril, but the good news is that a lot of these factors are within your control.  

In 1992, Bland & Ruffin summarised the literature on the factors associated with research productivity and identified twelve that were consistent across definitions of ‘productivity’ and time. Subsequent studies have not challenged these factors to any great extent, so let’s look at each in turn.

Factor 1: Clear goals

Does your team have clear goals for its research? Do the members grasp your vision and know why your research matters? At your next team meeting, ask everyone to jot down their individual perception of what  your research goals are on post-its. Put them up and compare them to your own. Do they really understand your goals and where their work fits in to the achievement of these?

Factor 2: Research emphasis

Does the group feel that research is important to the organisation? In Oxford, there should be few problems with this. 

Factor 3: Group climate

A composite factor, made up of listening to others, dedication to work, frequency of staff meetings and the valuing of innovation. Add in mutual respect and a feeling of belonging to something worthwhile, and you have a potent mix of what gets your staff out of bed in the morning (or in the middle of the night, if the experiment demands it).

Factor 4: Participative governance

Are you a dictator? Staff should feel they have a say in what happens. Do you make all the decisions? Do you let them make all the decisions? Neither should be your default position. Some decisions will have to be yours, but consult, explain, and ask where you can.

Factor 5: Decentralised organisation

Most research groups are ‘flat structures’; there are no layers of management. So can your researchers get on with things when you’re not around? Clearly understood goals, good participative governance and a positive group climate all help to ‘decentralise’ decision making, avoiding either stagnation or anarchy when you’re not around. Bear in mind, much of the productivity will have to take place without you.

Factor 6: Communication

This is not to do with how many emails you send, but with how you empathise with others, how open you are, and about the connections you make with people. How well do you help the team to connect with each other? Do you celebrate success and special occasions? Do you encourage interactions and discussions? Are breaks frowned on or are they great times for a catch-up? Encourage talk.

Factor 7: Resources

Few research groups have everything they would like, but have you most of what your team perceives as being needed? Resources include time and access to advice as well as equipment, libraries and money. Be aware of what they think is essential. And help them understand any restrictions.

Factor 8: Size, age, diversity

In general, productivity increases with group size, though some research suggests a potential dip when groups exceed ten and  some loss in productivity after the same group has been together more than seven years. Age does not seem to affect outputs, despite a general belief that it does. Differences in background in terms of degree held and discipline are found to aid productivity, providing values and goals are similar. So, beware of hiring clones, and pay attention to values when hiring.

Factor 9: Rewards

Money rarely motivates, but it can demotivate if people feel they are being paid less than the going rate. Praise and recognition are much more powerful motivators than cash. Say Thank you and Well done more often – providing you mean it – and look for opportunities to recognise effort and achievement. Recognition can be as simple as noting when something has gone well, or being flexible on some aspect of someone’s  work.

Factor 10: Culture

The culture of a research group lies in how it sees itself as unique or special and how it distinguishes itself from groups around it. It may be that you all take turns to cook your native dish, or all spend time supporting a particular charity, or that your group has a reputation for celebrations that involve amazing cakes. You may be known for being incredibly supportive of each other. Myths, legends, stories, rituals – all encourage a sense of belonging and identity. You have a key role in setting the culture and in developing it.

Factor 11: Recruitment and selection

Concentrate on hiring the best, not just the best of a bad bunch. Agreed, this is much easier said than done, but recruitment mistakes crop up regularly in PIs’ ‘My greatest regret’ stories. Follow the process, get trained and get advice. It may add  a few days to the hiring but it could save you years of regret. One recruitment mistake can break a group.

Factor 12: Leadership

This is the variable that affects all the others. You need to provide direction and vision, use your influence to champion the group, represent the group effectively, and help provide it with its identity. Use the power given to you by your competence and research reputation rather than your power of ‘I am the boss’.

So… are you strong in all these areas? Where could you improve? What current issues in your group might be traced back to one of these factors being not quite right?

Choose an area you think needs working on, and identify two or three things you could do to improve it. When you feel it’s working, choose another.

Based on Bland & Ruffin Characteristics of a productive research environment: literature review Academic Medicine 67(6) 1992

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