Category Archives: Management


I have now written enough posts in this blog that it needs a catalogue. I have organised the posts into 8 themes:-

  1. How to write a Grant Application
  2. Strategy for writing grant applications
  3. Writing Style for Grant Applications
  4. Giving and Receiving Feedback on Grant Applications
  5. Dealing with referees reports and with rejection
  6. Interviews and Talks
  7. Software
  8. Academic Life and Afterlife

How to Write a Grant Application

Strategy for Grant Applications

Writing Style for Grant Applications

Friendly fire: Giving and receiving feedback

Dealing with referees reports and with rejection

Interviews and talks

Software for Writing Grant Applications

Academic life & Afterlife

A ‘Good Book’ for Heads of Department.

DarthEvery academic head of department should read the book Getting to Yes. Although it is  a book about how to negotiate, originating in the Harvard Negotiation Project, it applies to a huge range of situations that are not normally thought of as negotiations. It is like a bible for the day to day business of running a department.

The essence of the book is that there are four steps you should take if you want a negotiation to have a good chance of success. They are:-

  1. Separate the person you are negotiating with from the problem that you are negotiating about.
  2. Deal with the problem in terms of the interests of the relevant parties, and not in terms of the positions they wish to adopt.
  3. Invent options for mutual gain.
  4. Use objective criteria to evaluate possible solutions.

My experience, both as a head of department and as a manager of heads of department, is that these four steps are like four commandments for running a department in a way that supports academic endeavour. Let’s take them in order.

Separate the person from the problem

The first commandment is to separate the person you are negotiating with from the problem you are negotiating about. This makes it possible to turn negotiation from a confrontation into a collaboration in which people work together to solve a shared problem.

In management you get a similar benefit from separating the person from the problem: it reduces confrontation and makes it easier to solve problems. But you get several other benefits. For example:-

There is also a more general benefit of the first commandment. It makes it easier to manage people, especially people that you might be tempted to think of as “difficult’ and in situations that give rise to difficulty and disagreement.

Focus on interests, not positions

The second commandment is to represent the negotiation problem in terms of interests (what each party would like get from a solution), rather than positions (the  outcomes preferred by the negotiating parties). This makes it possible to look widely for ways of satisfying the interests of both parties and potentially to find an outcome that satisfies more interests for both parties than either of their starting positions. Part of the reason for this is that dealing with interests makes it possible to consider interests that are not strictly part of the immediate problem, such as the desire to maintain a long-term relationship, as we shall see when we get to the third commandment.

In management, the second commandment makes it much easier to change the way things are done in order to produce better outcomes. When people focus on positions, on what they do, it can be quite hard to persuade them to do anything other than what they have always done. Focusing on interests makes it possible to have discussions about the benefits of change without getting blocked by concerns about who does what.

Invent Options for Mutual Gain

The third commandment is to invent options for mutual gain. You add extra factors to the negotiation in order to make the outcome better for both parties. This is possible when something that is of great value to one party can easily be provided by the other.  A simple example is when a car dealer takes your old car  in ‘part exchange’ when they sell you a new one. Usually this creates mutual gain because the dealer will make an extra profit from your old car and because you will be saved the trouble of selling it yourself. This is why dealers pay unrealistically high prices for ‘part-exchange’ cars.

Inventing options for mutual gain is hugely important in management, both in dealing with individuals and in creating strategies for departments, faculties and institutions. At an individual level, you invent options in order to persuade people to  take on  tasks that they might otherwise be reluctant to do, although you also do your best to select  tasks that best suit each individual. At a broader level, inventing options is part of how you create strategies that reconcile apparently conflicting interests. For example, increasing numbers of UK institutions are creating graduate teaching assistantships (GTA), which pay PhD students to teach and, which, if they are well designed and implemented,  can improve both undergraduate teaching and research while saving money. I should emphasise that, for GTA schemes as for most strategic initiatives, good outcomes depend on good design and implementation: it is very easy to run a GTA scheme that costs money and damages both research and teaching.

Use objective criteria

The fourth commandment is: use objective criteria. In negotiating, when you make your criteria objective it becomes possible to discuss what an acceptable outcome might be, and to analyse outcomes and their implications.

In management, using objective criteria makes it possible to be rational about issues that otherwise can become emotional battlegrounds. Management decisions that can have huge emotive impact, ranging from failed applications for promotion to refusals to replace retired colleagues can be subjected to analysis and used to formulate plans for future success.

How useful is the book?

I first read ‘Getting to Yes’ ten years ago, when I had a disagreement with my dean, which my coach suggested I might resolve  by negotiation. I read the book in an afternoon and it had a huge impact on my ability to operate as a head of department. I used to find that my management successes could usually be attributed to my following one or more of its commandments and my failures could be explained by neglecting to do follow them. When I was a dean I would frequently buy copies of the book for my reports to help them understand my approach to management.

On the other hand, the book’s influence on my ability to negotiate with the dean was less clear. When I had read the book, I asked him for a meeting. He refused to meet me; instead he resolved our disagreement by giving me everything I had asked for. Maybe I could have done better by negotiating with him but it’s hard to see how!

Dark Matters: Benji and the assumption of reasonableness.


Professor Benji

A couple of weeks ago I received a lesson in management from Benji, our miniature schnauzer.

The lesson was about the assumption of reasonableness, which is a huge help in dealing with difficult behaviour of any kind. Whenever you are faced with difficult behaviour you should strive to make the assumption that the behaviour is well motivated and that the apparently unreasonable behaviour is the result of an honest mistake – either of interpretation on your part or of execution on the part of the other party. If it is at all possible for you to make the assumption of reasonableness, you should use it to guide your actions.

I don’t say that you have to believe the behaviour was reasonable, rather you should consider whether it could possibly have been reasonable. If the behaviour could possibly have been reasonable, no matter how improbable it might seem, it is better to act as if you believed that it was. There are three possible outcomes, which you can categorise as win, win, lose.

  • The most likely outcome is that subsequent behaviour will prove that the assumption was correct. This really is the most likely outcome. Cock-ups are much more common than conspiracies. Most people are reasonable all of the time and pretty much everybody is reasonable most of the time.
  • Even if the assumption was incorrect, you may find that your reasonable response puts you in a position to influence future behaviour and make it more reasonable.
  • In the worst case scenario, that the assumption is completely and irretrievably wrong, you are more likely to get good evidence of that if your behaviour is pushing towards reasonableness.

On the other hand, if you go for the evil twin, the assumption of unreasonableness, you get a lose, lose scenario. The two possible outcomes are:-

  • The motivation for the behaviour was, in fact, reasonable. In this case you will be in the wrong and, unless the other party adopts the assumption of reasonableness you will have a damaged relationship.
  • The motivation for the behaviour was unreasonable and you lose all hope of retrieving the situation without external intervention. My coach, Andrew Scott, gives some interesting case studies that illustrate this in his blog.

I am working with Andrew on his book, which will explain how he resolves situations like this. Until it is published, which will probably be next year, just take my advice and adopt the assumption of reasonableness.

DarthI don’t claim that the assumption of reasonableness is always easy, but I do think it’s always the best thing to do. That’s because it usually works. It works whether the difficult behaviour is an edict from your boss, a revolt by your students, a hostile email, or, in the case that provoked this post, a dog barking in the middle of the night and then pissing all over the kitchen floor.

It takes some effort to be reasonable when you find yourself standing barefoot in a puddle of cold piss but it is worth it. It turns out that Benji has quite severe diabetes. His high blood sugar overwhelms his kidneys and they produce masses of urine, so much that he was drinking about 15% of his body weight of water every day.

Over the last couple of weeks we have been gradually increasing Benji’s insulin dose. His drinking has reduced by about 50% although his blood sugar isn’t yet under control.  It will probably take another couple of weeks to get his dosing right, but at least he hasn’t wet the floor since we started the insulin

Dark Matters: Management is Good for You

Darth“Dark Matters” will be a category of blog posts in which I will seek to give a positive view of academic management. English universities face a range of really tricky problems right now and, even if you want to blame government for the problems, it is university managements that will have to find solutions.

I will start with two points that I think are fundamental.

  • Management is important: the quality of universities depends critically on the quality of academic management, so if we want good universities we need to get clever people interested in managing them.
  • Management is fun: it is a satisfying occupation for people who are good at research, although it definitely requires some differences in approach.

Management is Important

Would the garden be this pretty without the work of a gardener?

Would the garden be this pretty without the work of a gardener?

To make my point about the importance of management, it is helpful to draw an analogy between an academic department and a flower garden. Individual plants grow by themselves, just as academics do their research and teaching with a very high degree of autonomy. However a great deal of work is needed to create an attractive garden and to maintain it. Plants must be carefully selected; they must be watered, fed and protected from changes in the weather; their growth must be monitored and managed; slow growers may need protection and encouragement; aggressive species must be cut back; dead plants must be removed and replaced. This analogy has its limits but the point is that nobody would expect a garden to look good without a good gardener.

A university is much more complicated than a garden and it needs much more management. In order for academics to be happily and productively engaged in teaching and research, a host of issues need to be taken care of. There must be enough staff of the right calibre, work should be shared equitably, they should feel encouraged, supported, motivated, competent and adequately resourced to carry out their work, they should have the right range of opportunities to develop, there must be enough undergraduate and postgraduate students, appropriate buildings and so on. These are all issues that used to be taken for granted, but they are increasingly difficult to control. In the last few years rapid and unpredictable changes in the constraints on different kinds of funding, in employment law and in the ease with which different subjects can recruit have made it more difficult still.

Management is Fun

It’s ten years this month since I first became a manager and I have enjoyed it immensely. Like research, management is a huge exercise in problem solving with immense scope for creativity. Managing a faculty was a long-running exercise in constrained optimisation. The constant question was “How can we do X in a way that makes the university better?”

One of the hard lessons – which I learned once but had to teach many times – is that whenever you want to start a new activity there are never any new resources. You gain a new resource by sacrificing an existing one. For example you might create 2 lectureships by sacrificing a professorship. You may think that this sounds stupid. Why would you rob Peter to pay Paul? But it is actually a great way of optimising. If you want do do something new but it’s no better than all the things that you are already doing, why do you want to do it?

One of the big barriers to good management is a failure to acknowledge that management is real work and it takes time, in exactly the same way as does productive work, teaching and research. Heads of department frequently carry heavy, often heavier than normal, teaching and research loads. This is a crazy misuse of resources. Management is a difficult and important job. Its purpose is to create the conditions under which academics can work effectively. Managers who carry heavy academic workloads are unlikely to do their management jobs properly. They are only human.