#233 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 8          August 1996

FORUM—from our readers

Shirking Responsibility

I'm a scientist in a large publicly-funded international organization.  An outside review panel visits us annually and reports on our progress to the agency that grants the money.  The agency then sends a copy of the report to our project leader, my supervisor.

What bothers me is that my supervisor never takes responsibility to make major changes.  For instance, before the review committee visits, most of us (including the project leader) realize that a certain individual ought to be let go, that we should stress a new approach, and that we should ignore data derived from a specific technique.  However, the project leader doesn't even hint at managing these kinds of changes.  What happens is that the review committee quickly (in a day or two), and independently, comes to these same conclusions. 

After we receive the committee's report, then the project leader immediately makes the recommended changes.  If the project leader had taken responsibility for making changes when they become necessary, we could have achieved so much more.  Progress could have been twice as much as it has been.

For instance, we've been working hard for two years trying to adapt a published technique that was successful for a project somewhat similar to ours.  All we could show for those two years was a hint that the technique "might" work.  We hadn't been able to get it to work, however.  Four months after last year’s annual review visit, a new technique was reported.  The authors showed that it was directly applicable to the system we were working with.  Unfortunately, our project leader wouldn't let us spend a few months trying this new method, so we just grinded out experiments that didn't bring us closer to our goals.  It took this year’s review committee report to get the project leader to tell us to put all of our effort on the newer method.

Not only is our project leader wasting money and time by not taking responsibilities for making needed changes, but he is also looked upon as being a ineffective supervisor.  His main job should be to make, and act upon, decisions that help us reach the goals.

The review committee has visited us four times and this is the fifth, and last year, of funding for our project.  I am very concerned about the next project we'll be assigned.  What if it doesn't have a review committee?  Or what if the review committee doesn't make good suggestions?  Will my supervisor not dare to adapt to changes—in personnel, strategies, and technologies?

I'm writing this because it’s obvious that the higher levels in my organization either don't care how projects are going, or aren't aware of our ineffective leadership.  Unfortunately, reports from the review committee are only sent to the project leader.

Therefore, if you are paid to be responsible for making decisions, you should be making them.  Otherwise, not only are you impeding progress, but you are also advertising your inability to take the role that’s been assigned to you.  Furthermore, your staff will have less respect for you, and you lose the opportunity to have a team that's enthusiastic about working with you.  Certainly, that influences the environment for innovation.

Anonymous

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