Your project is going to fail, everything will explode and you’ll probably get fired

Planning out a new project is a rollercoaster of ups and downs and fighting (mostly about money). A new project proposal, be it in academia or in a company, is made up of many parameters and conflicting parts, from resources to its possible usefulness and even where it’s being done. Planning out a project is like trying to get a 5 dimensional seesaw to balance while being shouted at by small needy children on each of the seats.

But the bureaucracy and intricacies of project planning are possibly left for a larger blog post and also until I’ve worked out how to draw a cartoon of a 5D seesaw.

Today I wanted to write about how the technical part of new projects is what drives me as a scientist, and also manages to instil more fear than almost any other parts. Contract negotiations included.

Now at the outset a new project normally requires a new idea or possibly the extension of an old idea in a new and exciting way. Very few projects get funded without having at least a little something about them that is new and risky. Which is good because thinking up new things is my reason for being!

But while I absolutely thrive on that feeling of mapping out new and exciting work it comes at a price. Being new generally means it’s not been done and in the middle of all that excitement they may be a moment where you’re sitting at a meeting of 15 people mapping out this amazing project and at the back of your mind this tiny voice says.

“Wow this looks great…. I mean IF it works”

All of a sudden the giddy excitement about the project is swapped for the worrying doubt that just maybe it won’t actually work and come the end of year one the entire project is going to be stalled because your idea blows.

It’s a fun moment.

Stuff doesn’t work all the time. If I was always right every time I’d start getting very suspicious that I was living in some kind of weird simulation or assume that somehow everything is wrong in such a clever way that I can’t figure it out.

But what if the thing that doesn’t work is the linchpin pin of that massive project and what if that thing is the bit to which you confidently said “oh that yeah, no probably three months tops”. What if the 15 other people round that table suddenly find that you can’t do the thing that you were very confident of and now the entire project grinds to a jarring halt.

Well obviously you’ll be kicked off the project, ostracised by your team and probably be branded and excommunicated from all future meetings. Small children will point at you in the street and your local paper will publish withering cartoons satirising your failure.

Except none of that will happen, except possibly in your head at 2am.

Things don’t work all the time – that is just a fact of R&D. Sometimes the things that don’t work aren’t just your experiment on a Friday afternoon, sometimes they are really important fundamental things that you were really really really hoping would work.

That is the whole point of research. If it just worked it wouldn’t be called research it would be called doing-the-thing-we’d-said-we-do, which is admittedly less catchy.

Stuff not working out exactly as you’d planned it is how you end up coming up with clever new science solving it. Once a project is complete it’s easy to forget that to get there you probably didn’t go the same route you’d planned to but you got there anyway and fixed (or worked round) at least 3 show stopping problems along the way.

And the ones you didn’t manage to fix? Well that’s why you work in a team. Amazingly the other highly trained scientists around you are pretty good at problem solving. The whole point of big projects is to do something difficult that someone has never done before with a team of people that can maybe solve things you can’t so that the sum of your effort is better than each of you could do on your own.

I’m not sure knowing all that will help during my next 2am staring at the bedroom ceiling panic about which every project is bothering me this week. But maybe it will help someone else. In the meantime I might need to make a special background for my phone saying “Your project will be fine! Go back to sleep!!”.

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