I find one of the biggest hurdles for progress in research is when thought processes and/or activities have to take a sharp right turn in direction. This could be an abrupt request for a chat in your office, a series of meetings with only minutes to spare in-between or a discussion that drifts. Poor self-management, constantly switching between tasks, can have the same effect. In previous posts I have referenced the brilliant book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman. On reading this I found myself reflecting on my own faults and tolerances in approaching academic life. Since digesting and re-reading this, I’ve become increasingly interested in environmental factors that might impact on our ability to maintain focus. This leads onto another, equally, brilliant book I can heartily recommend: ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: The Seven Patterns of Innovation’ by Steven Johnson.
Moving from page to page, one cant help but consider how environments in research groups can have a significant, yet largely neglected, impact on scientific delivery. In academia, the balance between making yourself available and focusing in isolation can be hard. More so when there is a full compliment of staff members around, each crossing different periods of high and low intensity workloads.
A key discussion in Johnsons book is the idea of fluid networks. A fully fluid network can be detrimental to innovation, with far too many random collisions of ideas. A fully stationary network is equally damaging, quenching any chance of ideas merging and progressing as the lone researcher tries to do everything. More often than not, academics can fall into either of the extremes, and even force it upon themselves. Reasons are many, including a culture of personal empire building or simply trying to do too much.
Whatever the reason, what is the role of the university in enforcing positive change in the existing environment? I’m not suggesting we all need offices with moveable walls and garden rooftops. But, maybe its time for academia to adopt the model of allowing researchers to do whatever they want one afternoon or day per week. Imagine the workload model, with no overflow allowed into this one afternoon per week. Crazy? Building in an element of fluidity, or reserving a day for which the academic can fall into their own thoughts, might deliver wondrous advances! But, ‘might’ is the operative word isn’t it? Can you reserve that special time within your existing routine? Have a go, think about it. Faith in mechanisms that might deliver beneficial change for individuals and groups is just that. Or is it? Perhaps the evidence is just too clear now. What do the likes of Google know about innovation anyway? *cough*