Updated: Oct 11, 2022
The American philosopher and educationist Nicholas Butler has said: “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.” This is applicable to scientists who specialises to extraordinary levels. I have spent a good part of my scientific career at the Institute for Plasma Research in Gandhinagar, India. A part of this career was as a pure academic who fulfils Butler’s definition of a specialist. As an academic, I had to supervise and guide students in research and help them become independent scientists. In that role, I had to build up their confidence and make them believe that they were leading the research. In addition to the purely academic role, a good part of my work was involved with execution of time and resource bound projects, where one has to take the role of a manager, a generalist. As a project manager, I was associated with building fairly complex engineering entities as part of the research and development of fusion devices. These use advanced technologies like pulsed electrical power, intense magnetic fields, ultrahigh vacuum systems etc. An example is India’s first fusion device, ADITYA, commissioned in 1989, which produced plasma at a temperature of 5 Million degrees. In fulfilling this task, I had to work together with hardware suppliers, erection contractors, staff engineers and peers to get the work done. The second type of activity where execution was crucial involved developing industrial technologies based on plasma physics. I identified and developed commercially and industrially valuable applications derived from Plasma Physics in this role. As a consequence of this activity, a Centre bridging the Institute with the industry came up in Gandhinagar, where many technologies have been developed and spun off. The Department of Atomic Energy, our administrative department, sees some of these as societally relevant technologies of considerable developmental value. An example of a societally relevant plasma application is India’s first plasma gasification plant which destroys organic and medical waste. In this, I had to work with peers and with assistants and motivate them to think outside the box. So, I have been professionally concerned with innovations and technology for quite some time. The primary concern was how to stimulate and strategise innovation in technology. The fourth activity covered work relevant to capacity building and skill development in Universities in the field of Plasma Physics and Fusion Technology by motivating University faculty to prepare projects and help fund Universities to nucleate and grow research in these areas. This followed India’s entry into the ITER project and it was thought imperative to conceptualize a long-term programme — a National Fusion Programme (NFP) — aimed at acquiring indigenous competence in all aspects of fusion science and technology by supporting Universities to initiate research and development activity is plasma diagnostics and fusion technologies. The fifth activity was related to India partnering with six nations to build ITER, the world’s first thermonuclear fusion reactor. I was involved in an advisory capacity in fulfilling India’s commitment of hardware delivery to ITER . As a member of the ITER advisory committees, I also dealt with several scientists from other countries while ensuring that Indian interests were protected. We are all managers of various resources. The physical resources are money, time, space and people. Skills like Communication skills, technical skills, intellectual skills are another valuable resource. Foremost among these is the skill to execute and manage people and time. Management is all about execution. People can make or break your plans. Time is the most precious resource, and lost time is irretrievable. Let me discuss the principles which I have gathered in my professional life. Developing advanced technologies has many dimensions. It has more to do with men and society than with machines. Organizing men and systems and solving interface problems is the key to any high technology development programme. The most important resource is people, and a manager must know how to deal with them and build up cohesive work teams. The greatest motivator is a success. If you want people to remain motivated, you have to ensure that they achieve success in what they are doing. For this, you have to remove all obstacles in their path. The barriers are usually administrative, constraining rules, lack of facilities, lack of human resources, workplace politics, delay in decision-making, etc. Grand successes are great, but they take time, and people are generally impatient. Hence it is essential to set modest success targets, realisable in a few months. A skilled manager must know how to break down the large tasks into achievable baby steps. Progress must be advertised, and information disseminated widely. I have used Email, websites and newsletters for this. People like to be informed about what is happening. Another motivator is fame. If a person does something well, make sure that he gets the ownership and that others know about this. Finally, the greatest de-motivator is credit due to a person being denied to him. Equivalent to this is denial or delay of formal recognition through promotion etc. When work is assigned, especially to new and inexperienced people, a process of mentoring is essential. Mentoring can be formal, through instructions on how the work is to be done, through self-study assignments or informal discussions and brainstorming. Trust and transparency in your engagement with the people working with you are essential. If they think you have a personal agenda different from the common good, trust gets broken, and performance suffers. Good people are not satisfied with what is assigned to them formally. They want to dabble in many things over and above what you give to them. Encourage this, subject to making them realize that the fulfilment of primary responsibilities has priority. A person constrained in a limited sphere is likely to become frustrated or become an uninspired automaton. Autonomy is essential for creative people. However, people who demand freedom are often reluctant to pass it on to those below them. So, a democratization of the autonomy principle is essential. Do not expect people to come and report to you on their progress. A practice I followed involved a daily tour of the work centres and holding informal discussions on how the person is coping with the work. Overall progress has to be monitored through formal periodic reviews when work is assigned. A person left strictly alone either feels lonely or unwanted. Therefore, a measure of his progress, which he cannot gauge himself, must be provided through these interactions. Work review should not be like a confessional, involving only the worker and the boss. Instead, it should be an open process involving all relevant people. In such circumstances, claims would be more realistic, and the person reviewed knows that what he has achieved and not achieved are in the public domain. Furthermore, during these reviews, everyone must be given a chance to talk about their work. There is nothing more frustrating than being denied a chance to talk about one’s work. Excessive and aggressive criticism while reviewing work can have adverse effects. Criticism must be balanced with proactive engagement and appreciation of the good points of the work under review. Let me say a few words on schedule management. There are many professional techniques like the Gantt chart and mind mapping. I have learned that the best way to do this is to use an Excel sheet. I list all the tasks associated with a project in great detail in the vertical column. The horizontal rows record the progress of the job. If it is on my computer, I can often take a look at it and see where follow-up is required. A final lesson learnt is this. Audits and reviews by external experts cannot fundamentally change the performance of organizations and groups of people. Such reviews can only bring the malaise to the surface. Fundamental change can come about only through self-critical internal analysis or change of critical personnel.