The Stoic Project Manager

There was this one week workshop of a H2020 Research & Innovation Action in beautiful Italy. The workshop was going to be exciting, since we – the consortium – invited external parties to test the beta version of a tool we are developing. Of course, this first test was of interest to the European project officer and so, the project officer also was present. Completely prepared, a group of 5 from the coordinators’ institute departed from the airport. The first dread the project manager, and even more so, a colleague had to conquer was the forgotten passport of the colleague. Hurray for Schengen and drivers licences……they bring you through the sky as well as over the road. About an hour later, just after taking the seat in the plane, a very familiar name was called through the speakers, telling that the flight attendants found your public transport card on the floor. Keep smiling and be thankful for this happy coincidence.

After a two hour flight we arrived at Rome Fiumicino. From there we had to take a train to our venue, so one of us bought our tickets through the machine. Since it is still quite a long walk to the train station and it already was a little past 19:30, we bought the tickets for a departure after 20:00. Of course, we arrived way before 20:00 at the station, so we decided to act blunt and catch an earlier train. But the closed gates and the guard wouldn’t let us: we needed to come back after 20:00…….at least that was what we understood. So, Italy, what do you do? Grab an espresso of course. Around the time we were allowed to depart, we tried to get through the gates again. No luck. Then we are told the tickets are only valid for tomorrow. Which should have alarmed us, since when buying the tickets the machine clearly told us that ‘the tickets are valid today.’ When asking at the ticket office if the date could be changed, we were informed that this was possible but useless, since on Sunday evening no train would leave anymore to our destination. And no, tickets could not be refunded. No influence on this anymore, so…….the obvious solution was to grab a taxi. This whole intermezzo was not so much a dread, but it certainly was a waste of time and money.

A next shock for the project manager – you know: responsibility and so – was the message that there was no room reservation for the coordinator on that specific evening. The coordinator was supposed to have a room as of the next day. Of course, also this was easily solved but the stoic principle started to be shaken a little and the blood pressure went up a bit.

Throughout the week, there were smaller and bigger hick-ups that needed to be solved, some of these within the influence of the project manager and others not. And this of course is the biggest challenge for a project manager: you know there are issues that can make or break the goal of the workshop. You also know you have no influence on this whatsoever, but still you worry and get panicky. Exactly this moment is where you have to realise some issues are outside your span of control. Exactly here you need to act in a stoic way. Of course you can stay on call to assist wherever you can be of help. But where you can’t be, the best thing you can do is to stay calm, trust that others will solve the issue and make sure your own part in the play is conducted perfectly.

Despite smaller and bigger issues, the workshop was successful and promising for the future of the project. Because of the smaller and bigger issues, it was a week we will not easily forget. Especially, since someone wanted us to enjoy the full experience and decided to cancel our flight back home. Now, this was not a fun moment after a heavy week, being exhausted. But also this was solved for the better: the coordinator arranged for a flight that landed home at a time our original flight still had to depart from Italy.
The Stoic lesson from all of this? Stay calm, decide what you can do to solve things and leave the things you can’t solve to the people who can. And never stop smiling and laughing about all the silly things that can happen.

In Defense of Being Sad

The corporate culture of New Public Management universities doesn’t leave us much room to an emotional response when things go wrong. Emotions are not constructive, and we want to be proactive and look ahead and not dwell in the past. Like Elsa in Frozen, you should let it go.
Like many other people in that situation my default emotion is anger. To be honest I can throw a tantrum that makes Donald Duck seem passive-aggressive. And that isn’t constructive, neither for me or my surroundings.
Often, the Stoics are considered cold as ice because of the indifference. One reason is the famous Epictetus quote:
“Man is troubled not by events, but by the meaning he gives them.”
That is sage advice, and we try to live by it. What the quote does not say is that you give meaning to the event immediately. Actually, you should wait. The Stoics would advice you to wait, so that you respond to an event, not just react.
In between those two moments allow your feelings to come through. But instead of getting angry – feel sad. Feel sad that the grant didn’t go through. Feel sad that management didn’t go with the strategy you suggested, that you didn’t get the new job, that your abstract was not accepted for the conference. Give yourself a Bridget Jones moment and shed a tear while listening to “All by myself”. When the civil war broke loose in ancient Rome, Cato mourned. Even when he chose sides, he mourned when his side won a battle, because Roman lives where lost. (Actually, Cato was renowned for having a terrible temper, so the chance is that he got horribly angry as well, but let’s just forget about that for a moment). Cato foresaw most of what happened, and yet he allowed himself to mourn for what had happened. Feel sad for your researcher, for human kind, for the world, and yes, for yourself.
Give yourself the time to feel sad and withhold responding until tomorrow. Just don’t get angry and take it out on somebody or make a rash decision while governed by your emotions. But just because you shouldn’t get angry doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an emotional response.
A way to get less sad (and angry in a transition period) is to practice negative visualization. Imagine the grant doesn’t go through (which would be in accordance with most success rates), that management hates your strategy and that the committee laughed at your conference abstract. Imagine the worst consequences possible. Most times it won’t be that bad, and even so, someone in the world has been in the same situation as yourself, and they survived it, and so will you. But that still allows you to be sad.
This post is inspired by and interview with Alain de Bottom at The Daily Stoic. The interview can be found here. We are great admirers of both The Daily Stoic and Alain de Bottom and recommend both highly.

Cato – the research manager

Few stoics are as admired as Cato the Younger (95-46 BC).

He was a Roman born into nobility and followed into his grandfather’s footsteps and became a Roman senator during the rise of Caesar. He was a known Stoic and a strong defender of the republic. A battle he obviously lost. He ended committing suicide in Uthica in North Africa, when he realized that the battle to Caesar was lost. He would rather die than live under tyranny.

Cato was an icon. As Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni write in “Rom’s Last Citizen”, Cato was what every statesman aspires to be: Physically tough, intellectually brave, unflinchingly principled and beloved despite his warts. But he was also self-righteous, rash and often blind to the backside of his ideas. And he was as delusional as Caesar in believing that only he could save Rome. That drove him into being mastered by his passions – anger, ambition, and resentment.

So, what can we learn from that in our daily lives in research management?

First of all, we do not want you to commit suicide.

What we could learn from him is to have principles and fight for them. Cato fought for what he thought was right. He had strong ethics. He fought for the republic and liberty and against corruption. Perhaps sometimes there are things larger than us. Perhaps we see wrongs being done, even if in small scale, and we accept them for the sake of peace. Perhaps we sometimes should put our foot down even risking ourselves. If not our lives then our jobs.
That being said, sometimes the tales of his life seem too much of a spectacle. Did he really mean it? Or did he just enjoy the attention? One doesn’t exclude the other, and even in his own time it seems as if people thought of him as a bit of a drama queen. His uncompromising approach was honourable as a basic ethics, but it seems as if he fought all changes. According to the Stoics, no one will ever be a perfect Stoic sage (except Socrates), and in that sense, we are all failed Stoics. That doesn’t mean that you should stop trying, but perhaps sometimes a little pragmatism is okay, and all societal changes are not necessarily bad. In order to survive we sometimes have to pick our battles.

In Cato’s defence, he did compromise in the end. What we often don’t realise is that there was no alternative for Cato. In the civil war, he chose sides for Pompey, well knowing that he wanted to be a dictator just like Caesar. But of two evils…Except then it was too late.

But note that after battles during the civil war he always mourned. Even when his side won. Roman lives were lost. Sometimes in the name of efficiency and pragmatism we forget to mourn when bad or wrong things happen. We look at best practices and statistics for successes. We avoid the tough decisions and go for the quick fixes.
Cato would probably have been a terrible research manager (except at writing the ethics part of research applications!), but perhaps sometimes should we! Some things are worth fighting for.

The desire of Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation

One of the goals of the European Commission is to ensure that the potential of the European Research Area is used to its full. This connotes that all EU Member States have their fair share in research and innovation activities and funding. Until today, this is not the case. The so called “EU-13” or “New” Member States are lagging the success of the old Member States. Obviously, this is affecting the European Union’s cohesion and coherence and therewith worrying the European Commission.

Unit B5 (Spreading Excellence, Widening Participation, Science with and for Society) of the European Research Executive Agency is the department that deals with programmes to close this gap.

In other words, Unit B5 has the desire to spread excellence and widen participation.

You may wonder why this is considered a subject for a blogpost on New Public Stoicism directed at Research Managers & Administrators. Well, it all comes down to the word ‘desire’ as desire is one of the Stoic disciplines. The discipline of desire requires desire for the good, aversion towards the bad and indifference to indifferent things. “The good” should be read as only those things that are under one’s control, volition or action.

Is the desire of Unit B5 a desire for the good? The answer can be ‘yes’.  The EC has several options to fulfill their desire. They could, for instance, oblige geographical spread in consortia. Or increase the impact score whenever a new member state is one of the beneficiaries. Decisions to make such conditions obligatory is within the control of the EC. But the desire is very much driven by political aspects. And if the EU wants to increase the public support throughout Europe, the options mentioned may not be the most effective ones.

Another option the EC considers to be very interesting, is to make use of the expertise of RMAs. The way forward would be one of co-creation with a role and responsibility for all stakeholders involved. Experienced RMAs could help the R&I organisations in the New Member States to increase their networking effort, improve communication and provide training. The organisations in the New Member States would need to welcome the collaboration and endorse their need for research support offices. The EC could provide instruments to facilitate the process.

Back to the stoics, since for the reader the relation with NPS may stay quite vague. Well, the discipline of desire is very much related to the acceptance of things outside of our control as our fate. A term that is copied from Nietzsche by Pierre Hadot and used in this sentence is ‘amor fati’: love of one’s fate. Now, does this mean that we can use the so-called ‘lazy argument’, thinking that if things happen as they do there is no use in us acting in any way?

The answer is ‘no’. It is good to realise that things from the past can’t be changed. But you can try to influence the future by changing your current actions. And this is exactly what the EC envisages and where RMAs can take action.

If fate works through us, even if there are things in life that seem to require great effort on our part to achieve, whether or not we make the effort is fated along with the outcome” (page 84, Robertson, 2015)

Or as Ryan Holiday rewrites Marcus Aurelius: “The obstacle is the way”

One can create a change in causal effects by acting. And the form of co-creation would lead to very different causal effects than when solutions are sought in obligations.

A framework programme in the hand is worth two position papers in the bush

Hic et nunc. Here and now.

This is one of the mantras of the stoics. You can’t change the future – and there is no need to worry about the future. All you can control is your actions here and now.

Hic et nunc is obviously not the mantra of the current time when looking at the amount of position papers and conferences on FP9 right now. Sometimes we wish that people writing these position papers would ask themselves: “Does the world really need another position paper on FP9 stating what other people have already stated?”
The problem is that actually the answer is ‘yes’ for political reasons : if many people are saying the same thing – then it might influence the process obviously. Yet, looking at the current political climate, the voice of experts doesn’t hold great value. But they are all published under great fanfare, and we all rush to read. Our guess is also that the announced conferences on FP9 this Summer and Fall will be well attended (who are we kidding – of course we thought about it too, and we might even (have to) attend).

The thing is that you of course need to be strategic and consider the future. But the stoics had a different approach. Whereas position papers and conferences are attempting to be proactive (note to self: write blogpost on why being proactive is a bad thing!), the stoics worked with negative visualisation as we have described in the blogpost “The benefit of negative visualisation”. Imagine all the bad things that could happen and you won’t be unpleasantly surprised. And who knows, suddenly Horizon 2020 doesn’t seem that bad.

How great would it be to have a position paper saying: “This is how terribly wrong we imagine FP9 could go!” William Cullerne Brown touched a little on this approach to research in his keynote at the EARMA conference 2017. He started by lining up the situation of crises in research due to the political situation. Based on this he moved on to analyse the role of universities and what we could do to conquer the current situation. Here and now. What do we have to offer?

Let’s dial down on the position papers and secure that we show through our everyday work how important research and research management is for society and tell the world about it, so that everyone understands. That will do bigger wonders for FP9 and research.

So, instead of reading more position papers or going to a conference on an FP9 that nobody really can say anything about, have a cup of coffee with one of your researchers and talk about their research and what you can do for them here and now and the relevant calls in Horizon 2020. Because in the end, a framework programme in the hand is worth two position papers in the bush.

Superman or Don Quixote?

Today’s theme is courage. How are we as research managers courageous? Are we at all?

The Greek term is translated as: endurance, confidence, fortitude, love of work, great heartedness or brave heartedness. First and foremost it is translated as the opposite of cowardice.

When talking about temperance last time, we talked about not necessarily speaking up even if you wanted to. This time we are mainly going to talk about the opposite – that sometimes you should speak up.

One of the problems of New Public Management is the culture of positivity it can create. Now, being positive can be good: as stated above, courage can also be translated as love of work. The positivity we oppose is the forced positivity, where we are always ‘constructive’ (read: don’t go against management), there are no problems – only challenges, and critique is spun as negativity. Somehow we tend to forget that an expression of critique can be an expression of love of work.

It has created a culture where it is easier to shut up and focus on our daily task. But in doing that – we also agree that our opinion does not matter – we allow ourselves to be instrumentalised in the research machine. In that situation we have more in common with a piece of software than with the researchers. Budget cut after budget cut makes us worry about our job, and so we say nothing when colleagues around us collapse from stress.
Is it understandable? Certainly! Is it courageous? Not really! We like all the translations. Speaking up requires fortitude; confidence in our professional knowledge, great heartedness towards our colleagues (both researchers and research managers).

The problem of large political organisations such as public universities is that changing this takes time and effort. So we have to believe in what we know, and that what we say is relevant and important and we have to insist on being heard. And keep insisting.

As always it is not that simple. Great heartedness is also to be overbearing. As mentioned when talking about temperance, sometimes it is better to shut up; sometimes shutting up is the brave thing, but never when you are fighting for someone else or fighting a cause larger than yourself.

The attentive reader might object that we are suggesting fighting things outside our control. But you don’t know if they are outside your control until you have tried changing them. Just don’t let your response be guided by your emotions. We do not control external events or our emotions, but we do control how we react to them. Sometimes our reaction is indifference – sometimes we are courageous and speak up.

There is a fine line between being Superman and Don Quixote. We don’t want you fighting windmills, but we have a feeling that too often we give up beforehand and dive into the fine details of our day to day work. Don’t be a piece of software – be Superman.

If you need some inspiration look at our colleagues at the Central European University in Budapest. They are not only fighting internal university rules, but their government. Now that is courage. Read more about their case and support them here:

On temperance

This is perhaps the most fascinating of the virtues (in my humble opinion), so where better to start?

As mentioned earlier, temperance (in Greek: sôphrosunê) is translated in different ways: temperance, self-discipline, moderation or discretion.
One thing is that it includes organisation and orderliness. That makes sense in almost any work context. We all feel the pressure from management, researchers, colleagues and our family. We have too much on our plate and in order not to break down we need to keep some order and organise our work and work environment. Not that we always succeed, but we know we ought to.

It becomes more tricky when we begin to talk about, excess, modesty and self-control.
Modesty can be hard in two ways. First of all you want to celebrate your successes. You put in a lot of work, but if working pre-award you know you didn’t write the application; post-award, that you didn’t complete the entire report to the European Commission; strategically, that you didn’t write the whole strategy on your own. But just as bad is false modesty. It is just as intemperate as bragging and taking the honour of other people’s work. The problem probably occurs especially in the culture of recognition that we have created. We should be visible and our managers and leaders should recognise our work. But haven’t we all tried being praised for something, we didn’t really have part in (and feel guilty) or pulling an all nighter and nobody notices- or even worse complains that what we did wasn’t enough? In a culture of recognition just knowing that you did your best and not let your ego crave the public recognition is hard. Terribly so. But that is where you find modesty.

We work in a world of big egos – prima donnas. Don’t get me wrong. There are so many great researchers and managers who appreciate our work, but you all know what I mean. Self-control can in some situations be so so difficult. When you are assigned to a task that you know that you are “too good” to solve, when you are wrongly criticised (perhaps even in public), or some researcher is just unfair. Of course it is fair to say no at some point. But how often will it actually help? Most times it will just escalate the situation unnecessarily. The key is to remember: what is within my control? What other people think is not within your control – not even when it is unfair what they think. And you can’t control how you feel. But you can control how you act upon your feelings. And you will be judged on how you reacted. Is it tough? Yes. Will you fail? Yes. Then you try again. Just like the rest of us.

Excess is a difficult word in research management. What are we to indulge in? Budgets? I think in our context it is when we forget about modesty and excess in our abilities. When we consider ourselves too capable – or capable of too much. Pride really comes before a fall. Temperance is to know your own worth and no more. Perhaps you are too good to the tasks you are assigned. Good for you – then find a new job where your talents are appreciated – or accept our fate.
If you found this interesting and would like to look more into it – try and read Ryan Holiday’s “Ego is the enemy”. It is a great – and provocative – read, and you will be a better person and a better research manager afterwards.

The benefit of negative visualisation

During the EARMA 2017 Annual Conference remarks from two different presentations really struck me. The first one was from William Cullerne Brown. In his presentation “Business as usual? Framework 9 and the Future of the West” he pointed out that science, and scientists for that matter, places itself outside and thus separate from society while being convinced of its uniqueness. Next to this, the three threats for the next Research Framework Programme he mentioned were:

  1. Irrelevance
  2. Brexit
  3. Populism

Then later the same day, I attended the presentation “the influence of politics on the research agenda – or unanticipated change events” (Agatha Keller, Simon Kerridge, Barbera Gray) in which the effects on research of the referendum on migration in Switzerland, the Brexit in Great Britain and the Trump administration were discussed. Swiss researchers were not prepared for the unexpected. British scientists probably realised the effect a Brexit would have on research but did not anticipate enough to assure a different outcome. And if the scientists in the US saw the harsh research policy coming, I’m not sure. Probably not as ‘the war on science’ it turned out to be.

The remarks from both presentations strongly interrelate. Where W.C. Brown warned the scientists that they are only facing inward, setting themselves apart from society, S. Kerridge underlined the need to get into people’s minds, show positive effects of scientific research, preferably as a kind of 20 second YouTube advertisement running before every YouTube video people play. Only this way, populists might lose ground and society might support instead of seriously question the need for and use of scientific research.

You may wonder what the first paragraph has to do with negative visualisation. And maybe you are not sure what negative visualisation envisages. The Stoics use negative visualisation to contemplate all bad things that can happen to a human being. Sometimes, stoics went a step further and lived as if the bad things had already happened to them. An example of this is choosing to be cold and hungry for a while instead of warm and well fed. One of the reasons to do this is to harden oneself against possible future misfortunes. A second reason is that a person will grow more confident and courageous. Finally, it can help a person appreciate the current comfort (W.B. Irvine, 2009). You may think “yes, nice this explanation, but I’m still puzzled on the relation between this and the issues mentioned in the 1st paragraph.”

One of the tasks of research managers is to try and convince the scientific staff of the need to show the societal impact of their research results. Yes, they are often more interested in scientific publications and presentations at related conferences, but when it comes down to more popular articles or events, explaining what the gain for society is or can be, it often is a different story. But for scientific research to survive as is, it is very important that the scientists step down the ivory tower, get out of their comfort zone. They need to visualise the minds of the other stakeholders: the general public, policy makers, industry, children, etc. They need to visualise and think how these people could be informed in the best way to gain their enthusiasm, their interest, and their positive judgement. And the reason I relate it to ‘negative visualisation’ is because it is such a different path to go for a scientist, and one they will not specifically be fond of. But knowing that a person can only grow more confident and courageous, the negative visualisation may turn out into a positive result.

With populism growing all over the world, and “the fact that a populist never mentions ‘science & technology’, universities and the EU Framework Programme in the hands of populists could not continue to be what they are today.” (W.C. Brown). To prevent this from happening, I call on the research managers to convince their scientists of the need for negative visualisation in order to inform society in such a way that society will embrace scientific research, its need and added value.

The Stoic Conference Attendant

The EARMA conference is approaching. Actually, in little less than a week we will hopefully see many of you in Malta at sessions, lunch, coffee breaks and for a beer at the reception or at the dinner.
This prompts the question: What is the Stoic approach to attending a conference?
Obviously, we are there for the professional input. But for most of us building and maintaining a network is just as important. It easily becomes a game of cards. Meeting as many people as possible, exchanging business cards – and moving on. Or perhaps even getting as close to “the right” people as possible. Alternatively, you can decide to be too good for that and talk to nobody or only to the few colleagues from home who are there as well. As always, the key stoic values will guide the way.
Moderation: Don’t be aggressive and try giving your card to as many people as possible or only try to mingle with the right people. That being said, building and maintaining your network is a legitimate part of attending an international conference. When it comes to the sessions, choose wisely. Choose what is relevant, and if nothing sounds interesting then spend an hour evaluating what you have heard so far, or sit down and get to know some of the people who made the same decision.
Courage: Be courageous when networking. Most people are just that – people. Even the people who have been in the business for years and are highly respected need someone to talk to during the coffee break. This might as well be you. But don’t hunt them down just to talk to them. That is not being courageous – that’s being stupid. Be courageous in meeting and talking to people who you don’t know and don’t expect anything from and who don’t expect anything from you. And be courageous in choosing the sessions. Don’t always play it safe.
Justice: Be just in assessing people and sessions. It is easy to be fooled by titles and those who have built a name for themselves. Give people the benefit of the doubt. You never know who will be your lifelong collaborator with just the same interests as yourself. Also, being just is about evaluating people you meet who perhaps don’t treat you as expected. You don’t know if they had a bad day, are tired or a thousand other things. Or they may just not be good at small talk. The same goes when attending a session that didn’t meet your expectations. The presenters might have been nervous, been doing it for the first time (believe us – it takes guts) or perhaps conference presentations isn’t really their thing. Be benevolent.
Wisdom: The wise conference attendant has a purpose. Not just goals. As we said in our initial blogpost, we want this profession to be about trust and relationships. This we will try to keep in mind when choosing the sessions. But first and foremost we will try to keep this in mind when networking. None of you – or us – need any more business cards from strangers. We need strong relationships with our colleagues all around Europe as well. And our purpose is to come home with new inspiration for work (a blogpost on following up on conferences is on the way).
Will we succeed? Probably not. But we will try. Trying is within our control. Many things are not and we will not waste time or energy on those.
Have a great conference – we hope to meet you there.

Elaboration on a few words of the New Public Stoicism vocabulary

We think that the standard vocabulary as is used for New Public Management, doesn’t suit New Public Stoicism. That is why we want to try to build the right vocabulary that holds the essence of New Public Stoicism. In this blogpost, I will elaborate a bit on the words “trust” and “building relationships”.

In the Third Letters from a Stoic (Seneca, p. 34-36) one can read: “After friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge.” We may not need to go as far as building friendship, but we – as research managers – will be judged by researchers before there can be anything like trust. And we ourselves will also judge the researchers.

The mutual judgement will be on the expected capabilities of one another: Will the researcher be capable to write an excellent research proposal? Will the research manager be capable to understand the research proposal? And what about being judged on ones knowledge? Maybe the judgement will even be on the person: is there a so-called click on both ends? The latter bears the risk of judging on character instead of actions. Therefore both parties should remember to stand back and take time to evaluate the actions or situations as objectively as possible. Don’t judge straight away because this brings the risk of deciding by emotion, be it negative or positive. And that is not the stoic way of acting.

Given the above, it becomes clear that the judgement takes time. But this time is necessary because it is the only way trust can be build. So, even without the trust being in place, the researcher and the research manager need to collaborate and start building their relationship. This can be a scary process. The scientist may be reserved in sharing the draft proposal. The research manager may be reserved in providing feedback. It is only on a step-by-step basis that progress in the relationship is made. After completing a first proposal, a first sparkle of trust may be build. That is: if the experience was a positive one. But to go to the full, more frequent collaborations are required. And the reservations need to fade away once the mutual judgement results in the knowledge that both researcher and research manager can fully trust each other. The draft proposal will be handled strictly confidential by the research manager, while the researcher will accept feedback even if it seems harsh at times.

Only if and when this state of mutual trust is reached, in the relationship built, you can “welcome one another heart and soul, speak as unreservedly with the other as you would with yourself and […] share all your worries and deliberations” (Seneca, p.35).