Friday, October 22, 2010

Give your chemists freedom!

There is quite a difference between being a chemist and being a soldier; nevertheless, I believe that both the military and science works well when decisions are pushed down to the lowest operational level. From an article by Gen. Frederick Kroesen in the August issue of Army:
It was in Vietnam that the centralization of control reached its apex, with the White House dictating bombing targets and division and brigade commanders playing "squad leader" in the sky." We reached a condition in which the chain of command was in a state of dysfunction. I have always maintained that a chain of command must function from the bottom up as well as from the top down -- with every squad leader making squad leader decisions and reporting to his platoon leader, "Here's what I found, here's what I did, and here's why I did it." When squad leaders have someone telling them not only what to do but also how to do it, they stop being leaders, and so do platoon leaders and company commanders. Initiative is stymied, and decision making is replaced by waiting to be told. Combat action becomes tentative, and military action bogs down.

In Vietnam many low-level commanders were subject to a hornet's nest of helicopters carrying higher commanders calling for information, offering advice, making unwanted decisions and generally interfering with what squad leaders and platoon leaders and company commanders were trying to do. There is no more effective way to destroy the leadership potential of young officers and noncommissioned officers than to deny them opportunities to make decisions appropriate for their assignments. [Emphases added; hat tip Tom Ricks]
Whenever I hear about professors telling their students how many equivalents of reagent to add or Ph.D.s telling their associates which reaction conditions to use, I cringe. Letting chemists make their own decisions (and live with the bad ones!) are the best way for people to learn; it will grow good chemists and good decision-makers. Anything else, and you're just another pair of hands.


  1. Unfortunately, some department heads cannot cope with other people having ideas superior (or sometimes just even a little different) to their own - hence the need to adopt a command and control/micromanagement R&D operation that crushes any initiative that might be shown.

    Just as pernicious are the information hoarders, who dare not share data outside of their managerial coven, for fear that it might somehow dilute their juju.

    In my experience these people never suffer the consequences of their mismanagement (under-performance, demotivated staff, dispirited lab leaders, loss of key staff), and happily carry on regardless.

  2. Wellllll.... but it's not quite this simple. Yes, everyone from the bottom up needs to learn how to do the job. But many hands-on, detailed interactions need to go into laying that groundwork. It is not particularly efficient to throw people into the deep end and wait until they swim to the top with the results. A good teacher will give the "answer" the first few times, but also walk through, step by step, the reasoning behind every decision.

    It's way more work to do it right than it is to either let people sink or swim, or to just tell them what to do every time. But allowing inexperienced chemists to make all of their own decisions can be a disaster for everyone (and all the meager funding) involved, sometimes to the point of physical danger. I agree with the spirit of your point, but not necessarily with the way you've presented it.

  3. Hi, Arlenna: Thanks for commenting!

    You're probably right, and you're probably right in the "too much freedom" is just as inefficient and/or dangerous than "too little freedom."

    But if I'm going to err in one direction when it comes to developing people (outside the novice stage), I'd err for "too much freedom."

  4. I feel like the best advisors I know have a pragmatic approach to mentoring: they tailor their interactions with students to different personalities. Some people flourish when thrown into the water (they'll swim to top), but others flounder until they have developed enough confidence and knowledge.

    Furthermore, many good chemists and decision-makers still prefer a collaborative environment with frequent feedback. Fortunately, chemistry is not the military, and each chemist is hopefully more than just a cog in a machine. I don't think a blanket approach, whether hands-on or hands-off, is the only option.

    But I definitely agree, if you have to hand-hold forever someone's doing something wrong.

  5. Scientists and military people are both ass-kissers who love the feudal society of mediocrities.

  6. i hate the feudalism of science. who says some scientists should treat others like serfs? hear!hear! to freedom in the lab.


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