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How to drive change in a research group, part two: a step-by-step guide

Research group leaders can use business frameworks to implement change effectively, argues Daniel Moraru. Here's how

Daniel Moraru's avatar
Shizuoka University
7 Dec 2023
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Research management

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Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.
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Implementing change in an academic research group requires a deep understanding of the components that change can affect. I covered this in part one of my miniseries on driving change in a research group.

Here, I propose a more practical step-by-step approach to driving change using The 8 Steps for Leading Change methodology by John Kotter.

Business leaders have applied these for decades to understand where transformational efforts might fail. Academic research group leaders can also use this framework as a recipe for implementing change (or, at least, for understanding where one might fail when doing so) in a research group.

Create a sense of urgency

The fact that students only have a limited amount of time to produce results in an academic research group already creates a sense of urgency. However, this might not be enough. In a business context, deadlines for project reports help. But in the context of a research group, you need a higher goal such as to make an impact on society through the contribution of scientific knowledge. A research group leader can create urgency by articulating the potential impact of participants’ work.

Build a guiding coalition

Colleagues in the same department, research collaborators and administrators can all form a support system to ensure smooth operations. However, it is even more important to create a guiding coalition: a group of people directly involved in your research who can help drive change. It should contain key individuals who are deeply involved in the lab activities and who can accurately understand its philosophy and broad targets. Identifying the right students to form this coalition is never easy, but always worth the effort. This could involve assigning leadership tasks to certain students and observing their teamwork skills and drive.

Form a strategic vision

If a research group leader does not create a compelling vision and strategy, then there is no hope for change. Where possible, tailor the definition of this vision and strategy according to students’ levels of research experience, as some will just be starting their journeys, while others will already be used to established methods. For new students, it’s better to break down the strategy into short-term action points that can be tackled more quickly. For more experienced students, asking for their input on strategy is a good way of keeping them focused on the long-term targets.

Enlist a volunteer ‘army’

A research group leader must use powerful, convincing and motivational methods of communication to consistently explain the change vision. The most impactful method, in my opinion, is to lead by example, by taking actions that you want your students to take, such as carrying out a preliminary experiment yourself before asking students to do it. Beyond this, ensure that you reflect passion, consideration and insight in your message and refine it continuously. This way, people will voluntarily support the vision.

Enable action by removing barriers

Failure is common in a research lab, especially at the early stages of research. Micromanagement is not the right way to deal with it. In the face of failure, leaders must demonstrate trust and empathy to facilitate learning. Clarify that you are not looking for people to blame but for the origin of the failure. In an ideal situation, students should feel empowered to take action and equipped with the right tools, frameworks and support systems. They should also feel that they can take corrective actions to any failures, independently or with advice, without fear of repercussions and without any barriers.

Generate short-term wins

Celebrate any success, be it the completion of an experiment, a well-delivered presentation or an award at a conference. These short-term wins help build momentum, inspiring lab members to achieve the group’s goals. Remember that a win can only be understood as such if you set clear milestones and communicate them effectively.

Sustain acceleration

This stage involves gathering the short-term wins into a consolidated output, such as a presentation for an international conference or a journal publication. For a research group, this requires arranging the pieces of the puzzle in a logical and consistent way that is in line with the long-term vision, strategy and research target. Without dedicating enough effort to consolidating the short-term wins, they might become dispersed and wasted, affecting the students’ enthusiasm. Consolidating gains also allows the group leader to define and enter a new stage of change.

Institute change

To help solidify the change, announce your new culture in a memorable way, such as during a milestone-celebrating gathering or by publishing it on the group’s website. Then, it will finally be time to enjoy it. Research groups can pass down this culture to the next generations of students under light supervision from the leader.

At first, change might come as a shock. Those affected will only embrace it when they perceive it as meaningful. For this to happen, a leader needs to communicate effectively and provide adequate support. Ultimately, this can offer students a great learning experience and benefit society overall.

Daniel Moraru is an associate professor at the Research Institute of Electronics at Shizuok University, Japan.

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Research management

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