|Apply the Four Disciplines of Execution in Biomedical Studies|
|Biomedical studies, especially those with specific hypotheses, have a detailed research plan. Like many other plans beyond the biomedical field, a biomedical research plan also faces dilemmas in execution. Researchers, including post-doctoral fellows and graduate students, often get lost in daily lab activities and courses, thus delay or even alter the research schedule to accommodate the daily routines. My recent reading of The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals and the application of these disciplines truly have increased my performance in my research practice.
The authors of the book divide activities in an enterprise into two categories—the whirlwind and the wildly important goals (WIGs). The whirlwind keeps the agency’s (or the research project in our case) operation going on a daily basis, whereas the WIGs keep the company growing and developing. The energy used on the whirlwind should not take over that used on the WIGs. To achieve the WIGs, the team should apply four disciplines: 1. Focus on one or two WIGs; 2. Act on the lead measures rather than lag measures; 3. Keep a compelling scoreboard; and 4. Create a cadence of accountability.
In a biomedical lab, we can also apply the four disciplines for a project. Lab routines, or daily duties, such as preparing media and ordering supplies, should not take the priority of the WIGs. Luckily, many labs have dedicated personnel for managing the lab. But, even a researcher has to do this daily maintenance, she can arrange a dedicated time, for instance, every Thursday after, to do so. Therefore, we should put the majority of our energy to the WIGs, which drive the project going forward.
To achieve the WIGs, a researcher should find them first. In a project with a hypothesis and a number of specific aims, the final purpose is pretty clear. No matter how complex is the project, we can always divide the project into several parts. That is to say, at any given time, the research team should have only one or two WIGs that need to be done timely. One give WIG has the form of from X to Y by when. From X to Y indicates the measurable goal, whereas by when indicates the timeframe. In my project where I applied the 4DX, we were seeking the effects of a receptor in immune tolerance where we attempted a loss-of-function approach. At the initial stage, we set our first WIG as documenting the phenotype within 6 months. It is worth noting that the number of the WIGs at any given time should never exceed two.
In order to finish the WIG, we set up measures for collecting data. According to the 4DX, we should focus on the lead measures that result in the future data, rather than the lag measures that are the data we already have had. We decided to monitor the mice for signs of inflammatory conditions including molecular signatures. We certainly analyzed the data we had obtained for any further improvements in terms of experiment designing, but our focus was always to do a better job in the next round of experiments. This is Principle 2: Act on the lead measures.
We also built a chart with timestamps to trace our achievements. Every team member would mark what she has done on the chart, so we can see the progress over time. This chart serves not only a reminder of everyone’s hard work, but also encourages the team with a promising end of the project. Always watching the progress of the team on a scoreboard serves as Principle 3.
Principle 4 is to examine everyone’s achievements weekly or bi-weekly. During weekly meetings, one would report the progress of the previous week, and how precisely she has finished the plan of the week before. Also, a plan for the next week would be decided. A great deal of attention would be paid to the current WIG, including troubleshooting and modifications in methodology. However, regular lab business would not take any time in the meeting, as it would dilute the concentration to the WIGs.
The 4DX strategy improves our performance. Teammates engage to one focus of the project at a time, work on lead measures to produce data, record every progress timely, and meet regularly to discuss the plan of the previous and next week.
Further reading: Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling.The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals Free Press. 2012