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Employment

Chemjobber on heretics in the lab

Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo

by Chemjobber
March 12, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 11

 

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Leadership is as much of an art as it is a science.

I don’t usually read business books, but a friend suggested that I read Seth Godin’s Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Never one to shrink from a challenge, especially if it’s a book that is just 147 pages long, I sat down to read it. It’s an odd book, but one with a simple idea: find people who are passionate about the same things as you—your tribe—and lead them.

I was struck by how true this idea is in the laboratory. In the book, Godin says, “Change is made by people, by leaders who are proud to be called heretics because their faith is never in question.” Many people would consider most successful scientists to be leaders of new tribes; they have demonstrated success with an idea, sometimes challenging the status quo, and convinced other people to follow them.

We’ve all had experiences, large and small, where we find ourselves leading a tribe. Early in my career as a process chemist, I was assigned to work on a process that was too slow to meet customer demand. Many of my coworkers suggested running the process hotter in order to drive the reaction faster. In fact, this reaction was so hot that it demanded all the heating capacity that our facility had available and more. I had a different idea to make the reaction go faster: instead of adding our reagents in at a hotter temperature, I decided to switch solvents and keep the temperature the same. I was relatively new to the organization, and I was offering an idea that was completely different from everyone else’s approach to the issue.

Being the heretic that I am, I decided to run the reaction in the laboratory without talking to the bosses first. My laboratory experiment demonstrated that we could get the reaction done in half the time. Also, the material passed specification with flying colors. With this in mind, I thought that my job was done and that I had proved myself correct. What I know now is that I wasn’t done because I had failed to keep decision makers informed. Yes, the heretic had shown that the groupthink wasn’t quite right, but my idea still involved adding some equipment to the plant as well as some risk to our plant operators (my chosen solvent was significantly more flammable than the material that we were using).

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I found myself explaining my new idea to the plant manager, who was one of the final decision makers in this process and whose direct reports would be involved in doing the work. He was skeptical; he didn’t think the risk was worth the reward, and he was unconvinced of the chemistry behind the idea. He really did see it as a heresy, and a potentially dangerous and costly one. After 30 minutes in front of a whiteboard where I explained why this process would work, we discussed modifications to make the improvements safer, and he agreed to try it.

I wouldn’t be telling you this story without a happy ending: we implemented the idea safely at large scale, and true to my laboratory experiments, the processing time was cut in half. Along the way, I learned some valuable lessons: safety in the plant is nonnegotiable, you need to explain the science if you want to earn the trust of others, and you have to take a chance and lead your tribe if you want people to follow.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at chemjobber.blogspot.com. Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at cenm.ag/benchandcubicle.


Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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