Are you guided by the science?

Written by Gemma Church Wednesday 30 June 2021
Science has informed our response to the pandemic and now offers us a route out. Should you be a more scientific leader?
Person looking at a desk with charts and hi-tech graphics

On 12 March 2020, just after the spread of the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, UK prime minister Boris Johnson made a speech full of foreboding. “I must level with you,” he said. “Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” It was, for many, the moment when the gravity of the situation cut through.

A few moments later, ordering people with symptoms to stay at home for seven days, he used a phrase that became the government’s go-to response during the crisis. “At all stages, we have been guided by the science, and we will do the right thing at the right time.” (I leave it to future historians to decide whether the two parts of that sentence belong together.)

For scientists, this was a milestone moment. It suggested that world leaders would be moving away from their usual instinctive leadership personas and trying to take a more rational, evidence-driven approach to decision-making instead. “What governments are doing for the first time, very publicly, is positioning scientific expertise front and centre in the decision-making process that affects our everyday lives,” says Ed Hayward, director of laboratory operations at Scymaris, a Devon-based chemical and pharmaceutical lab.

For other scientists, Johnson’s choice of phrase was wide of the mark. “Questioning like science” might have been a better mantra instead,” says Katherine Ridley, a spatial transcriptomics laboratory manager at the University of Cambridge. “Working in science, you question every single motive you have. You’re always trying to question why something is happening, why it’s happening in that way and what alternative explanations there are for what you’re seeing.”

As Hayward puts it: “People often look to leaders to be strong and resilient, but we also need leaders who can admit or talk freely about their vulnerabilities, leaving them free to draw on the expertise of others.”

The development of COVID vaccines in just a year is a supreme achievement of science. So, can science provide mainstream managers with a blueprint for leadership that answers questions using expert opinion and facts, not instincts? What can leaders learn from  the way that science is conducted?

We’ve developed a six-point list of what mainstream managers can take from science. But first, let’s take a trip to the gorgeous coastline of Devon, UK, to get a flavour of scientific management in action.

Inside Scymaris

Down on the Devon coast, with stunning views out to sea, you’ll find a laboratory that has been more than 70 years in the making. The facility started life as a marine science field station in 1948. Now it serves the pharmaceutical, agrochemical and chemical industries, researching everything from a chemical’s effect in the marine environment to its impact on fresh water, soil and sediment.

After a £15m investment from AstraZeneca in 2008, the site now houses multiple state-of-the-art laboratories. These are operated by Scymaris, a contract research organisation with the agility to make the most of this world-class facility thanks to its expanding team and its expertise in both management and science.

“Our goal is to help our clients understand the life cycle of their chemicals in our environment and the impact this has on the wider ecosystem,” says Scymaris director of laboratory operations Ed Hayward.

Several members of the Scymaris team joined from multinational companies. Hayward explains that “while we take the best of what we learned working for such organisations, we also understand how things in larger companies can inhibit collaboration and teamwork”. Equally, other team members have spent decades working at that very site, “so we have people with various specialties and expertise that we can draw on to get any piece of work done”.

Scymaris was formed in 2016 and now employs more than 40 people, including 29 bench scientists working across two large analytical chemistry and environmental fate laboratories and other specialised ecotoxicology labs. The company works with everyone from multinational pharmaceutical and chemical companies to startups trying to get a new product to market, helping them comply with industry regulations and understand the impact of their product on the environment.

Managing scientists across a range of different disciplines is not without its challenges. “Some scientists are in the lab by seven in the morning to attend to the biology of a test system, and others may pop in at ten at night to check on instrumentation or to review critical data. They all operate in different worlds,” says Hayward, “so, we’ve been very conscious not to create silos. From the way we lay out the lab to the way we organise our office areas, we need everyone working in collaboration. That’s very different from other organisations, where biologists and chemists may operate in separate buildings. In our experience, that just doesn’t work.”

This “highly integrated cross-functional approach” is one of Scymaris’ strengths, according to Hayward, addressing one of the key challenges today’s scientists face: trust. “We’re open to challenging each other and questioning each other. We normalise the practice of asking questions, sharing information and challenging one another on everything from the scientific methods we use to our wider ways of working. By normalising that challenge, you create an environment where you build a lot of trust between teams, and that transcends barriers of departments, specialisms and scientific disciplines.”

This structure helps Hayward in his day-to-day work. “In my role, I essentially make sure we have the right minds, the right equipment and the right infrastructure to solve complex problems for our clients. Central to all of this is the quality of the scientific outcome. I’ve got access to a very deep well of knowledge across the organisation, including six senior analytical chemists in one team, one of whom has been on the site for 45 years. By adopting a flat structure, you’re not limited in bringing the right people into a particular project, even if it’s just to address one particular aspect of a project.”

The coastal location of the laboratory in Brixham, Devon, means that Symaris can extract fresh seawater via a series of dedicated intake and return pipes for its tests, while providing staff with a beautiful place to live and work. “The site is one of our biggest assets and selling points. When people come to the facility, they get to see first-hand the work we’re capable of doing,” says Hayward.

Video calls can’t do the site justice, but the company has successfully maintained its recruitment drive during the pandemic, completing three hires using Microsoft Teams.

“We had to modify some of our usual practical assessments for the online interview, which was interesting, but it gave us the information we needed. We could see how the candidate behaves under pressure, test their basic maths skills and assess their scientific decision-making,” Hayward explains.

“Being nimble in any sense is vital for any company at the moment. We’ve got to change because the world has changed.”

Right, time for that list. Here are six lessons in the science of leadership drawn from my time spent with Scymaris

1. Normalise the practice of asking questions, sharing information and challenging one another on everything, which will help to build trust between teams.

2. Talk freely about your vulnerabilities. This leaves space to draw on the expertise or opinions of others.

3. Bring together people with various specialties, expertise and lengths of service.

4. Create an environment that inspires collaboration and teamwork – and prevent the formation of silos.

5. A flat structure means you can bring the right people onto a project, even if it’s only to address a small aspect.

6. Keep the manager’s role simple: bringing together the right minds, the right equipment and the right infrastructure to solve complex problems.

This article is an edited extract from a longer piece in the spring 2021 edition of CMI’s award-winning magazine. CMI members get the magazine for free. If you’d like to find out more about becoming a CMI member, here’s the full picture

Gemma Church, author of this article, has two Masters degrees in Physics, one from York and the other from Cambridge University. She’s now a tech writer and recently returned to Cambridge to study for a Diploma in Creative Writing.

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