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On Managing Resources

My professional life with a managerial function has been involved with five types of activities. In one, I was an academic, guiding students in research and helping them become independent scientists. In that role, I had to build up their confidence and make them feel that they are leading the research.

In a second role, I was a project manager, building fairly complex engineering entities as part of 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 doing this, I had to work together with contractors as well as with peers to get the work done.

The third type of activity involved developing industrial technologies based on plasma physics. In this role, I searched for how we can find commercially, and industrially useful applications derived from Plasma Physics. An example of this is India’s first plasma gasification plant which destroys organic and medical waste. In this, I had to work with peers as well as with assistants and motivate them to think outside the box. As a consequence of the last activity, a Centre bridging the Institute with the industry came up in Gandhinagar where a large number of technologies have been developed and spun off. The Department of Atomic Energy, which is our administrative department see some of these as societally relevant technologies of considerable developmental value. 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 Fusion Technology. This involved motivating University faculty to prepare projects and help funding Universities to nucleate and grow research in plasma physics and fusion technologies.

The fifth activity was related with India partnering with six nations in building ITER, world’s first thermonuclear fusion reactor. As a member of the ITER advisory committees, I had to deal with a number of scientists from other countries, while ensuring that Indian interests are protected.

We are all managers of various resources. The physical resources are money, time, space and people. Skills are another set of valuable resource. Communication skills, technical skills, intellectual skills. Foremost among these skills is the skill to execute. Associated with this is the skill to 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 programmes. I had great help in this from many friends from within IPR and outside. I would like to record my sincere thanks to all of them. 

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 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 obstacles are usually administrative, rules which constrain them, lack of facilities, lack of manpower, work-place politics, delay in decision making etc.

Grand successes are great, but they take time and people are generally impatient. Hence it is important to set small success targets, realizable in a few months’ time. 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 know what is going on.

Another motivator is fame. If a person does something well, make sure that he gets the ownership and that others know about this. 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. This 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 who are working with you are essential. If they think that you have a personal agenda different from the common good, trust can be 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 assign to him. Encourage this, subject to making them realize that there are primary responsibilities. A person who is constrained in a limited sphere is likely to either revolt or become an uninspired automaton.

Autonomy is important for creative people. Very often people who demand autonomy for themselves, are reluctant to pass it on to those below them. So, a democratization of the autonomy principle must be followed.

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.

When work is assigned, overall progress has to be monitored through formal periodic reviews. A person left strictly alone, either feels lonely or unwanted. 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. 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. 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 own work.

Excessive and aggressive criticism while reviewing work can have negative 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 time management. There are many professional techniques like the Gantt chart and mind mapping to do this. I have learned that the best way to do this is to use an Excel sheet. I list out all the tasks associated with a project in great detail in the vertical column. The horizontal rows record the progress of the task. If it is on my computer, I can take a look at it often and see where follow up is required. A final lesson learnt is this. Performance of organizations and groups of people cannot be fundamentally changed through external audits and reviews. Such reviews can only bring to the surface of the malaise. Fundamental change can come about only through self-critical internal analysis or change of critical personnel.

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