Derek Lowe thinks the Devil’s R&D management schemes might be scarily familiar

I’ve been thinking over a rather interesting question: what if I were put in charge of a chemistry research site and wanted to absolutely run it into the ground? What if it were my mission to demoralise the staff, lower productivity and relentlessly waste time and money?

Now, these may sound like silly questions, but look around you. Can’t you think of some places that seem to be run on such a scheme? Haven’t you perhaps worked there at some point? Here, then, are my proposals for the Devil’s Rules of Research Management. Note that there are no overtly demonic features (clouds of brimstone, distant bathrooms, poor lighting).
The serpent, we are told, is more subtle.


Everything shall be counted. Count experiments, count compounds. Count the projects that advance, and tie everyone’s pay to them as much as possible. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it, and if you can’t manage it, well, what good is it, anyway? You will need targets, targets for every task, and nothing is too small to be beneath notice, nor too large to be exempted. Will this lead to artificial number pumping behaviour at all levels? Hah! It’s a small price to pay for making the all-important goals.

What if it were my mission to demoralise the staff, lower productivity and relentlessly waste time and money?

Appearances matter. And if it comes to a contest between surface and substance, then the glossiest surface wins. Woe to anyone whose presentations are not smooth and slick, with as many colourful charts as possible. Woe, similarly, to those who fail to tell anyone who asks (and many who don’t) how cleanly and tightly their current project is running. The first step to making problems disappear is to get them out of everyone’s sight. Right?

There will be many, many meetings to show off those beautiful slides. Multiple overlapping layers of meetings: it’s the only way to keep things running smoothly. Your worth as a manager, and as a human being, is tied to how many people you can cause to assemble in a room on a regular basis and how frequently you can get them to stand up in front of you.

Projects shall be extended for two or three months at a time, but that can go on for years, if need be, to keep everyone moving along briskly. Wasteful long-term woolgathering will not be tolerated. Everyone must always be in the final dash for the finish line, over and over. Imagine how wonderful your time would be in the 10,000m race if you ran it as a series of 100m sprints, and you’ll see the sense of this.

The ‘rank and yank’ system will be instituted for performance reviews, and applied without mercy. Use all those metrics you’re generating to show the bottom 10% the door every year. Look, you know you have losers in your organisation, and this way you’ll keep harvesting them. People can be trained to hit their goals, you know · it just takes a nice firm hand.

Slogans. You need them; no organisation is complete without them. How is everyone to keep in mind the group’s commitment to Ultimate Quality and Flawless Excellence if you don’t keep reminding them? It’s been proven that you gradually become what you read on your wall posters and on the side of your coffee mug, so never miss a chance to drive the point home. 

Devalue the actual research. This is an important one that will, in the long run, do more to sap the strength of everyone involved than almost any other technique. Speak disparagingly of work ‘at the bench’. Make sure that everyone knows that the real ladder is the management ladder, and that you’re no one until you’re someone’s boss. Science, people, is something you grow out of, because the pleasures of discovering are nothing compared to the pleasures of ordering people about.

There, that should pour enough grit into the gears. Executed properly, these rules will give you a department where people spend most of their time frantically chasing artificial goals on short deadlines, hiding difficulties and trumpeting meaningless achievements. Anything useful that comes out of such a place will be an accident indeed. 

Derek Lowe (@Dereklowe) is a medicinal chemist working on preclinical drug discovery in the US and blogs atIn the pipeline