Finishing Projects with the Sprint Method: How Not to Suck in Graduate School
Mini – Meta-Blog
As always, this monthly blog post is a palate cleanser between deadlines and projects. I usually write these monthly missives after I complete a project and need to take a breath before starting the next. I find blogging to be a strong method to keep the writing momentum going, but without having to put too much energy into it.
All academic positions have their own challenges to research productivity. My situation is that I am in a professional training program. My primary job is to train practicing psychologists to provide the best possible educational and mental health services to children and their families. Very few of our students plan on a research career and most of them would prefer spending their time as a graduate student advancing clinical skills, rather than doing research. Therefore, the labbies have large numbers of classes to take, extensive fieldwork and clinical experiences, and theses. Working on day-to-day research that is important to me is not high on my students’ agenda.
Moreover, our program has changed to increase the amount of clinical activities and increase the clinical requirements for students. These are extraordinarily talented people who would like to be productive researchers, but it is simply unrealistic given the demands on their time. The result is that I have a laundry list of projects that were started with enthusiasm, but got lost in the fog of competing demands for time and energy. Half-completed projects are clear signs of an inefficient research lab. As our training program has become more clinical, my research lab has become less efficient. Finishing projects is hard for everyone and everyone has factors that interfere with productivity. This is why #GetYourManuscriptOut is a useful hashtag on Twitter. In my own head, I identify projects that are “in preparation” as a sign of failure. I have stumbled upon an approach to improving efficiency to improve our finish rate and to make the lab productive despite the clinical demands on the students and the administrative and book writing demands on my time.
We have designated the winter 2018 term to be all about cleaning house. We have been efficient at completing masters and doctoral theses, but it is the other projects that have become low priority. As my time has been spent writing a book and a major book chapter project, my supervision has been lax. Here is how we plan on cleaning house and finishing projects using a sprint method.
The logic of the sprint method is to work intensely on a project over a short period of time until completed. The time periods of the sprinting are negotiated. Accountability for deadlines is clear and strict. Failure to meet exact timelines will result in being dropped as a co-author. In this fashion, students will save a lot of time for clinical, thesis, and classroom responsibilities because they know that they will only need to work intensely for one or two weeks on the specific projects.
Identify the projects. Identify which manuscripts, grant proposals, or other lab task would benefit from an intense sprint in order to bring them to completion. For winter 2018, we have identified six (!) unfinished manuscripts, a website restructuring, and reformatting educational materials as our eight projects that would benefit from a sprint to completion.
Define the team. These unfinished projects tend to have multiple co-authors. Often it is the diffusion of responsibility have led to these papers being not completed. Define exactly who is going to be on this team and earn co-authorship.
Define the project. Most projects are half completed, data are collected and may be analysed, literature reviewed, and project outlined. Some sections may already be completed. Sometimes a project may be unfinished because the original outlined or data analysis may be problematic. Review the current nature of the project, decide what needs to be changed, and what needs to be continued. And develop a plan. Another purpose of defining the project is that sometimes projects that are unfinished are simply not very good. This is the time to be honest and decide that an unfinished projects needs to be deleted from the agenda and move forward with more promising projects.
Hold a team meeting. All responsible parties meet to develop multiple goals. Goal one is to reach consensus on the definition of the project and components that require work to prepare the project for final submission. Goal two is to assign responsibilities to discrete components of the project (e.g., James’s job is to develop figures 1 through 3). Goal three is to negotiate timelines and deadlines. The important part for goal three is to ensure that the sprint period is convenient for each member. Determining that a student has no competing major projects, exams, or clinical responsibilities during that week is an important factor. The sprint timeframes are most typically seven days. Some projects that may require additional time may take two weeks.
Negotiate a submission date. Each co-author will have a deadline for their projects, yet there is always integration of multiple authors and final polishing of the manuscript that needs to take place. So the submission date should be a week or two after the sprint period ends, but still needs to be explicitly defined and set.
Be available. When any member of the team runs into trouble or get stuck, they are responsible for solving the problem as quickly as possible. As such, the PI or other senior member on the project team must be available to address concerns, consult, and problem solve within 24 hours.
Celebrate success. Success is the submission of the project. If a project is eventually a rejected manuscript or unfunded grant proposal, then the revision or improve grant proposal can be recycled and put into another sprint list. Generally, I assume that the project is good — but no idea is truly good until it is finished. Celebrate finishing.
Most of us work from deadline to deadline. Usually these deadline-driven projects do not require the sprint method because completion dates are so firm. But our most important works are most typically those that are submitted without deadlines. Sometimes unfinished projects are relatively small projects, literature reviews, or secondary analyses of data. These are also the projects that are most likely to be put off to some unknown date in the future due to systemic constraints, time, or projects that are simply not well-organized. By focusing on discrete and intense work, we can finish projects that have been languishing.
So now — off to start the next project.