Tag Archives: Coaching

We had the workshop: where are the grants?

16630702_sAt Parker Derrington Ltd we often encounter rather fixed ideas about how to improve grant-writing outcomes. ” A workshop is what we need….. Can you manage 100 participants? Can you tell them how to get bigger grants? Can you do it any cheaper? What can you do in half a day?”  Obviously, to survive in business we have to allow the customer to be right, so we find ourselves giving rather a lot of grant-writing workshops.

Of course we think our workshops are the best in the business and we get excellent feedback.  However, a workshop can only do so much. Even academics who have good ideas, a good track record of publications and who can design a fundable research project need more than a workshop can provide. Let me explain. There are three problems that tend to prevent such academics from writing good research-grant applications:-

  • They don’t appreciate the unwritten constraints on the case for support.
  • They don’t have an efficient way of writing a grant-application.
  • They don’t usually get high quality help and encouragement from other academics.

The first two are covered in the workshops, but the third is not. Let’s look at the details.

The unwritten constraints on the case for support

There are two constraints that push people in opposite directions.

  • The Case for Support must be speed-readable. Research councils don’t tell you that most of the committee members who take the decision on your research-grant application probably  haven’t read the case for support properly. Worse,  even if committee members did read the case for support properly, most of them wouldn’t understand it.  Obviously your case for support must enable speed-readers to understand and remember what you expect to discover, why it is important, how you will do it, and what you will do with the results.
  • It must be easy to find the detail in the Case for Support. It will also be read by expert referees who will want to assess the detail of what you will do and why it is worth doing. However, few people appreciate that referees will do a much better job and will feel happier about doing it if you make the job easy. So your case for support should  guide referees to the specific content that supports each element of the case. And your summary should make it absolutely clear what arguments the case is making, so that referees know before they begin reading the case for support, what arguments they want to test.

In our workshops we explain how these constraints arise and how to design a case for support that meets them.

An efficient grant-writing process

It should be possible to write a research-grant-application in a week. Most people take months. Some take years.

We find two common factors that make writing inefficient. Probably the commonest is starting to write the grant proposal before designing the research project. Remember, the grant application is a marketing document that is trying to secure investment in the project. It can take a very long time to write it if  you start before you define the project because you don’t know what you are marketing.  Moreover, applications that are not based on a defined project usually fail to convince the reader that they are marketing anything at all: we call them zombie grants. A second factor that makes writing inefficient is not having a guide that tells you what to write in each part of the case for support.

We teach a 2-stage approach to writing in which the first stage is to write a summary that consists of 10 key sentences. That summary is enough to check whether the writer has a viable project. In the second stage, the summary is a guide that tells you what to write in each part of the case for support. Each of the key sentences  forms the first sentence of a major sub-section of the case for support and defines what the rest of the sub-section must convince the reader to be true, either with evidence or with detail about proposed research activities.

How to help a grant-writer.

It’s harder to help a grant-writer than you might think. It should be easy to give clear feedback that will tell them exactly what they have done wrong. Actually, it’s quite hard to do that unless your heart is made of stone, because accurate feedback is crushingly demotivating. Telling a colleague what is wrong with a grant-application that has taken them six months to write can completely destroy their motivation.

To write a grant quickly and well, a writer needs encouragement and feedback, delivered as directly and as quickly as possible.  Our 2-stage approach to writing makes it easier to give constructive feedback, partly because it breaks the writing task down into smaller chunks but also because it makes it easier to define what is expected at each stage, so it combines feedforward with feedback. We offer workshops for coaches to help academics coach their colleagues it but we also offer coaching directly to writers, either as a stand-alone service or as a follow-up to a workshop.  If you are interested, get in touch.

Dark Matters: Benji and the assumption of reasonableness.


Professor Benji

A couple of weeks ago I received a lesson in management from Benji, our miniature schnauzer.

The lesson was about the assumption of reasonableness, which is a huge help in dealing with difficult behaviour of any kind. Whenever you are faced with difficult behaviour you should strive to make the assumption that the behaviour is well motivated and that the apparently unreasonable behaviour is the result of an honest mistake – either of interpretation on your part or of execution on the part of the other party. If it is at all possible for you to make the assumption of reasonableness, you should use it to guide your actions.

I don’t say that you have to believe the behaviour was reasonable, rather you should consider whether it could possibly have been reasonable. If the behaviour could possibly have been reasonable, no matter how improbable it might seem, it is better to act as if you believed that it was. There are three possible outcomes, which you can categorise as win, win, lose.

  • The most likely outcome is that subsequent behaviour will prove that the assumption was correct. This really is the most likely outcome. Cock-ups are much more common than conspiracies. Most people are reasonable all of the time and pretty much everybody is reasonable most of the time.
  • Even if the assumption was incorrect, you may find that your reasonable response puts you in a position to influence future behaviour and make it more reasonable.
  • In the worst case scenario, that the assumption is completely and irretrievably wrong, you are more likely to get good evidence of that if your behaviour is pushing towards reasonableness.

On the other hand, if you go for the evil twin, the assumption of unreasonableness, you get a lose, lose scenario. The two possible outcomes are:-

  • The motivation for the behaviour was, in fact, reasonable. In this case you will be in the wrong and, unless the other party adopts the assumption of reasonableness you will have a damaged relationship.
  • The motivation for the behaviour was unreasonable and you lose all hope of retrieving the situation without external intervention. My coach, Andrew Scott, gives some interesting case studies that illustrate this in his blog.

I am working with Andrew on his book, which will explain how he resolves situations like this. Until it is published, which will probably be next year, just take my advice and adopt the assumption of reasonableness.

DarthI don’t claim that the assumption of reasonableness is always easy, but I do think it’s always the best thing to do. That’s because it usually works. It works whether the difficult behaviour is an edict from your boss, a revolt by your students, a hostile email, or, in the case that provoked this post, a dog barking in the middle of the night and then pissing all over the kitchen floor.

It takes some effort to be reasonable when you find yourself standing barefoot in a puddle of cold piss but it is worth it. It turns out that Benji has quite severe diabetes. His high blood sugar overwhelms his kidneys and they produce masses of urine, so much that he was drinking about 15% of his body weight of water every day.

Over the last couple of weeks we have been gradually increasing Benji’s insulin dose. His drinking has reduced by about 50% although his blood sugar isn’t yet under control.  It will probably take another couple of weeks to get his dosing right, but at least he hasn’t wet the floor since we started the insulin