On Project Leadership

While history is likely to associate March 2017 with the United Kingdom declaring Article 50, it also marked a more constructive event: The launch of the ETH Materials Department “Materials Scientist 2030, Who is She?” project. Here, two years in, are some reflections on project leadership based on what I have learned from making my own mistakes in our project in parallel with watching those being made across the Channel.

1) Leadership is different from Management. In one of my earliest blogs I discussed how we structured the management of our project , but I soon learned that this is quite a different beast from leading it.

2) Every project has its ornery characters. Engage them to work on the aspects that they are most ornery about, but don’t appoint them foreign secretary. I can’t offer any insights into how to respond to the ornery folks who are trying to steal your job, since for some reason there isn’t a big queue of old Etonians jostling to take over as Person Responsible for the DMATL Curriculum Revision.

3) Minimize the red lines. Stuff that is illegal or blatantly unethical should be out of course, the Young’s Modulus and titrations non-negotiably in. By being flexible, you might discover better ideas than your own, and even if not, no-one will cooperate if you tell them what you want the answer to be.

4) Practice by leading small projects before starting on big complex ones. Also a good idea for citizens when it comes to voting in referendums.

5) Be inclusive. Diverse teams reach better outcomes. You need all possible inputs to reach the best decisions, and everyone who is going to have to live with the outcome needs to feel vested in the process. Have fabulous staff and colleagues, and delegate.

6) Only take advice from your spouse / partner / family / friends if they are not going to benefit financially from the outcome.

At the start of our project, the two years that we allotted to reach this stage seemed like a long time, whereas in fact it has gone by very quickly and has kept us quite busy. But from my current position sulking in the Guardian echo chamber  it’s clear that we have done rather well: We have a plan that we agree on and that looks firmly towards the future. And that will probably be implemented while I am still an EU passport holder.

About Nicola Spaldin

Nicola Spaldin is the professor of materials theory at ETH Zürich. She is a passionate science educator, former director of her department’s study program, and holder of the ETH Golden Owl Award for excellence in teaching. She developed the class of materials known as multiferroics, which combine simultaneous ferromagnetism and ferroelectricity, and when not trying to make a room-temperature superconductor, can be found playing her clarinet, or skiing or climbing in the Alps.
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One Response to On Project Leadership

  1. Tara Tosic says:

    very witty, made me giggle. Instead of starting my days with the guardian and being bitterly ironic , I read your blog post; it put a lighter tone and perspective on the UK mess.


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