The Triple Non-Constraints on Academic Research: Why This is So Hard

Oregon Decision Neuroscience Symposium
February 2, 2019
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The Triple Non-Constraints on Academic Research: Why This is So Hard

 by Lisa May

I took a basic project management course offered through our University’s HR department a few years ago. One of the key insights I got from it is a new appreciation for why academic research is so hard. Because there are no constraints!!

The instructor was introducing the concept of the triple constraints– something that intuitively made sense, but I had never had articulated with this much clarity.

The idea is that projects are constrained by three competing forces: time, scope, and cost. I had heard this before in the sense of “do you want it fast, cheap, or good? You can pick two.”

But what was totally new to me was the idea that any project is usually driven by one main constraint (e.g. a software release deadline that has to be met). In this example, decisions about scope (what features make it into the release) and cost (how much money is allocated, often in the form of staff work hours) are based on that one main deadline constraint.

The instructor asked us to think of a few of our projects and identify which was the main driver – time, scope or cost. And it hit me. NONE OF THE ABOVE. Many of our projects have no constraints in any of these factors! Here’s what I mean:


When is the manuscript due? Oh…whenever. Whenever it’s done, we’ll submit it. Of course there are some exceptions like grant applications and invited manuscripts, but most of the time there’s no deadline.


What’s going in the paper? Oh…hmmm…well, we have some ideas, but basically whatever we want, right? And this will likely be assessed and reassessed and reassessed multiple times across the writing of this paper, right? Excitingly, pre-registration helps constrain scope! Just another case where open science makes good science.


Staff hours? Oh, well, the idea is that we just work as much as we can. There’s no budget constraint here, because it’s all salaried or volunteer work. So this can flex, we’ll just work however much we need to.

So no wonder this is hard, right? Our work is a open, unconstrained wilderness, with every aspect continually open to reassessment. We’re like children without limits or newborns who aren’t swaddled. It’s too open!

There’s a freedom to that – we can do whatever we want. But that freedom can manifest as anxiety – maybe we should be doing everything all the time perfectly and there’s nothing to make us stop.*

Applying constraints is a big step towards sanity.

LabScrum provides some limits, some structure. Flexible, self-generated limits that update easily, obviously. No need for too much restriction!

Two key concepts:

Separate planning from execution

You know what’s not effective? Sitting down to do something that’s cognitively challenging (analysis, theoretically complicated writing) and also be wondering “Is this the thing I should be working on right now? Have I forgotten any of my commitments? Did I promise I would get a letter of recommendation to an RA today?” Worrying about what work to do while doing work leads to bad work!

Time spent planning is a good investment. For a whole bunch of reasons. Among other things, it promotes peace of mind and clarity. When we sit down to work, we want to know “this is what I should be working on right now. I can relax, tune out the rest of the world, and focus.”

Divide work into small, visible, attainable chunks

So there’s no deadline. And it likely will be 5+ years before the world sees the paper(s) from your big awesome longitudinal study. But dividing that massive wilderness of a project into small, visible, attainable chunks will help SO much. Think of yourself like a little scared mouse. It feels scary to just wander way out into the open of that undefined landscape of work. Chunking up the work into small tangible pieces is like building walls and making little rooms. Then your little mouse brain can feel safe. You don’t need to tackle the whole giant thing today. Just huddle in this little safe tiny room and be awesome at this one tiny little task. And do that over, and over, and over. That’s all you have to do.

I’ll be describing the more tangible aspects of LabScrum in upcoming posts– things like how to structure meetings and how to handle long-term project planning. But I thought this was a good place to start. In part because it’s a place where my thinking about this started.


*Obviously, a project management process isn’t a magic bullet for the big systemic reasons why academia can be toxic. But hey…I’m a fan of anything that helps.

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