Tag Archives: University Management


The posts discuss 8 themes:-

  1. How to write a Grant Application
  2. Strategy for writing grant applications
  3. Writing Style for Grant Applications
  4. Giving and Receiving Feedback on Grant Applications
  5. Dealing with referees reports and with rejection
  6. Interviews and Talks
  7. Software
  8. Academic Life and Afterlife

How to Write a Grant Application

Strategy for Grant Applications

Writing Style for Grant Applications

Friendly fire: Giving and receiving feedback

Dealing with referees reports and with rejection

Interviews and talks

Software for Writing Grant Applications

Academic life & Afterlife

A Good Book for Department Heads and Their Colleagues

DarthEvery academic head of department should read the book Getting to Yes. Although it is  a book about how to negotiate, originating in the Harvard Negotiation Project, it applies to a huge range of situations that are not normally thought of as negotiations. It is like a bible for the day to day business of running a department.

The book is also invaluable if you are an ordinary academic and you have to negotiate with your head of department  because it is about trying to produce an outcome that is good for both parties. This means that you can initiate the approach from either side of a negotiation. It also means that the approach works better if both parties use it.

The essence of the book is that there are four steps you should take if you want a negotiation to have a good chance of success. They are:-

  1. Separate the person you are negotiating with from the problem that you are negotiating about.
  2. Deal with the problem in terms of the interests of the relevant parties, and not in terms of the positions they wish to adopt.
  3. Invent options for mutual gain.
  4. Use objective criteria to evaluate possible solutions.

My experience, both as a head of department and as a manager of heads of department, is that these four steps are like four commandments for running a department in a way that supports academic endeavour. Let’s take them in order.

Separate the person from the problem

The first commandment is to separate the person you are negotiating with from the problem you are negotiating about. This makes it possible to turn negotiation from a confrontation into a collaboration in which people work together to solve a shared problem.

In management you get a similar benefit from separating the person from the problem: it reduces confrontation and makes it easier to solve problems. But you get several other benefits. For example:-

There is also a more general benefit of the first commandment. It makes it easier to manage people, especially people that you might be tempted to think of as “difficult’ and in situations that give rise to difficulty and disagreement.

Focus on interests, not positions

The second commandment is to represent the negotiation problem in terms of interests (what each party would like get from a solution), rather than positions (the  outcomes preferred by the negotiating parties). This makes it possible to look widely for ways of satisfying the interests of both parties and potentially to find an outcome that satisfies more interests for both parties than either of their starting positions. Part of the reason for this is that dealing with interests makes it possible to consider interests that are not strictly part of the immediate problem, such as the desire to maintain a long-term relationship, as we shall see when we get to the third commandment.

In management, the second commandment makes it much easier to change the way things are done in order to produce better outcomes. When people focus on positions, on what they do, it can be quite hard to persuade them to do anything other than what they have always done. Focusing on interests makes it possible to have discussions about the benefits of change without getting blocked by concerns about who does what.

Invent Options for Mutual Gain

The third commandment is to invent options for mutual gain. You add extra factors to the negotiation in order to make the outcome better for both parties. This is possible when something that is of great value to one party can easily be provided by the other.  A simple example is when a car dealer takes your old car  in ‘part exchange’ when they sell you a new one. Usually this creates mutual gain because the dealer will make an extra profit from your old car and because you will be saved the trouble of selling it yourself. This is why dealers pay unrealistically high prices for ‘part-exchange’ cars.

Inventing options for mutual gain is hugely important in management, both in dealing with individuals and in creating strategies for departments, faculties and institutions. At an individual level, you invent options in order to persuade people to  take on  tasks that they might otherwise be reluctant to do, although you also do your best to select  tasks that best suit each individual. At a broader level, inventing options is part of how you create strategies that reconcile apparently conflicting interests. For example, increasing numbers of UK institutions are creating graduate teaching assistantships (GTA), which pay PhD students to teach and, which, if they are well designed and implemented,  can improve both undergraduate teaching and research while saving money. I should emphasise that, for GTA schemes as for most strategic initiatives, good outcomes depend on good design and implementation: it is very easy to run a GTA scheme that costs money and damages both research and teaching.

Use objective criteria

The fourth commandment is: use objective criteria. In negotiating, when you make your criteria objective it becomes possible to discuss what an acceptable outcome might be, and to analyse outcomes and their implications.

In management, using objective criteria makes it possible to be rational about issues that otherwise can become emotional battlegrounds. Management decisions that can have huge emotive impact, ranging from failed applications for promotion to refusals to replace retired colleagues can be subjected to analysis and used to formulate plans for future success.

Work out your BATNA before you get stuck in and if you get stuck

There is a fifth step, which is more important in negotiations than in management situations. Before deciding whether to negotiate you should work out your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. You should review your BATNA if the negotiation gets stuck or if the other party refuses to act reasonably.  If it becomes clear at any point that your BATNA is better than the best you can get by negotiating, then it’s better not to negotiate.

How useful is the book?

I first read ‘Getting to Yes’ years ago, when I was a new head of department and had an acrimonious disagreement with my dean, which my coach suggested I might resolve  by negotiation. I read the book in an afternoon and it had a huge impact on my ability to operate as a head of department. I used to find that my successes in management could usually be attributed to following one or more of its commandments and my failures could be explained by not following them. I also found the book extremely useful when managing my bosses and I wished I had read it at the beginning of my career. When I was a dean I bought copies of the book for my reports to help them understand how to manage me.

On the other hand, the book’s influence on my ability to negotiate with the dean was less clear. When I had read the book, I asked him for a meeting. He refused to meet me; instead he resolved our disagreement by giving me everything I had asked for. I guess he must have decided it was his BATNA!

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

Getting it Together

A couple of years ago I decided to start blogging. Foolishly I started two blogs at once. Each of them had quite a specific task.

First, I wanted to use the (now discontinued) blog Russell Dean to promote a positive image of university management. I think that the concept of a university as a place where researchers teach and teachers research is truly wonderful. I would argue that a good university can deliver better education and better research than other kinds of institution. I would also argue that to do so requires really good management. Unfortunately, even the best-intentioned management actions in universities tend to elicit an unhealthy, counterproductive cynicism in academics. Russell Dean would, I thought, dispel that cynicism and promote a climate of trust in Universities throughout the land.

After I started writing the blog I realised that my position as a member of the senior management of a particular university generated constraints and expectations that made it difficult to treat topics in the way that I wanted. For this reason I have decided to stop blogging as Russell Dean and I will use this blog instead to promote mutual trust between university managers  and those whom they manage. However I am also prepared for the possibility that the optimal climate of mutual trust may not come to pass until  my views on universities and how they should be managed gain universal acceptance. In the meantime I will take down the Russell Dean pages and recycle anything I think might be useful into the archives of this site.

My second blog had a simpler purpose. Jacqueline Aldridge and I wanted to support and supplement  our book, The Research Funding Toolkit. The intention was that the blog would be a source of good advice about how to write research grant applications and become a kind of online grant-writing workshop. That blog has been much easier to write but it is now getting a bit messy. I have decided to switch all of my blogging to this site.

I will also use this blog to write about anything I think might be interesting or useful. WordPress is an example. This is a WordPress website, which I have produced myself. WordPress is a great system for anyone setting up a blog or a set of web pages and it is free. However, a great deal of what is written to help people like me do things with WordPress is either intimidating or confusing or both. If I can use this blog to post something more helpful I will.

In sum, I am bringing together the two blogs I started and I hope to create something a bit more sustainable, more readable and more useful.