I was recently asked to reflect on HYPER leadership since founding in 2010: What was I trying? What was working? What was not working? What do I plan to change coming back from professional leave into a new lab building? Emphasis on leadership and “NOT VISION”.
What was I trying?
It’s easy to look back on past leadership with a bias perspective, so here is the post from 2015 and updated in 2020 with my thoughts on leadership: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/2015/08/28/21st-century-leadership/. Quite simply, I’m leading HYPER to develop the future technologies and professionals in clean cryogenic hydrogen. Many can say this. How is the key.
To be the best at this, my goal was to create a community of professional practice. A critical mass of high performing individuals that become more than the sum of their parts. With the right combination of diverse people, working synergistically on a common goal, a bonus effect occurs where individuals start accomplishing more than they could working alone. Since WSU cannot outspend the competition, we have to out-perform and out-innovate by cultivating such a community in a non-zero-sum game.
The mechanism I used to cultivate community was value alignment resulting in drive. Aligning a vision for what was achievable for humanity with the drivers (goals, passions, and skills) of lab members. With enough passionate and driven people co-located, my hypothesis was they would naturally seek to better themselves and naturally realize the bonus effect.
I created a lab structure to sustain development of this community:
- The people part of the structure: A team of lab managers ensures daily operations while mentoring graduate student leads. Each graduate student leader has a team of 1-8 undergraduates assisting them. Each team is in charge of an experimental facility. Each experimental facility has a grant of some kind funding operation.
- The timing part of the structure: Grants run from 1 semester to 5 years in length. Every semester teams come up with a theme/goal that works towards grant objectives. Each week or month I meet with the team lead to discuss progress. Each week the team meets for an agile sprint review of progress. Each day the team reports out on progress for that day.
- The sustaining part of the structure: We have a recruitment philosophy for new lab members. We also have a development philosophy for new lab members. The Core team of freshman and sophomores works directly with the lab management on lab needs that effect all of the teams in the lab while fulfilling core training needs they would not receive during the regular academic curriculum. The Core team and grad students lead weekly community meetings to keep everyone on the same page. Grad student leads then recruit the Core team members into their teams based on needs and abilities. Although we started with Slack, Microsoft Teams became the virtual lab organizer and presence that was especially valuable during the pandemic.
- The coaching part of the structure: I write grants to have deliverables that are timed to motivate teams to lock in technology advances. In other words, I write the grants to have peer-reviewed journal publications or public performances as the grant deliverables. I then use the development of these deliverables to coach the students and teams toward success. I also work directly with the Core team for more intensive mentoring because the earlier you invest in talent, the more long-term return you see in the investment.
Given the HYPER lab’s considerable successes, some of this is working. But not all of it.
What was working?
Unquestionably, the HYPER lab’s greatest accomplishments over the last decade are successes in international competitive student engineering competitions:
- The HYPER-Borea team win of the 2021 NASA Big Ideas Challenge against over 50 initially applying teams and 6 finalists from top schools.
- The development of a deployable hydrogen liquefier for the US Military, leading to the HYPER spinout company being purchased by Plug Power.
- The 2014 International Hydrogen Student Design Competition team win to develop a portable, containerized hydrogen refueling station.
- The 2012 International Hydrogen Student Design Competition team that had the highest score (but somehow got second after a key judge intervened?) for a university tri-gen power system.
- The development of the Genii liquid hydrogen fueled drone, the first by a university team.
Not only at a team level, but on an individual level we have had students win top awards:
- Three NASA NSTGRO/NSTRF winners (Dr. Ian Richardson, Dr. Carl Bunge, and Kjell Westra).
- Two Klaus Timmerhaus and one Donna Jung Award winners for top male/females in US Cryogenics (Dr. Ian Richardson, Dr. Carl Bunge, Jordan Raymond).
- One top graduate student award in WSU (Jordan Raymond).
- Multiple most outstanding students in the department/college (one year we swept all but one in MME).
We are now the first point of contact for multiple leading technology companies seeking to fill new positions. Often, HYPER lab alumni are selected for jobs requiring multiple years of industry experience, without the experience. Several companies are in conversations with us to establish training programs and classes they can routinely send new hires to.
Grant funding is also working. It could be longer term and less yearly. I have a rule now where I only write a proposal if I believe the odds are better than 50-50. We’re still waiting for a federal level program to reposition to fund cryogenic hydrogen, but we’re positioned well when one does. We are receiving more and more requests for service center related testing and could sustain the core functioning of the lab with it if we had to.
What wasn’t working?
I knew things were fundamentally wrong in the lab when one of our members told me, “You don’t need to worry about this Jake, you’ve got plausible deniability.” I’ve been in many labs, in many cultures, and many faculty have this ‘plausible deniability’ mindset as some kind of safety blanket where if something goes wrong, they can claim they were not aware and it was the student’s fault. One of the simplest definitions of leadership is to assume responsibility. While in this case the student was assuming responsibility for their actions, which is a good thing, it wasn’t their place to presume a lack of responsibility or leadership on my part. While I am not responsible for student actions, I am ultimately responsible for my leadership, lab initiatives and culture.
Part of the reason that some lab members have tried to keep me at arms’ length is that I am hard to satisfy. It’s really more of a continuous improvement mantra. I can almost always point out opportunities for improvement and it takes special individuals who are trained to understand this. We must do our best with the available resources. Although a lot is working well, we have a lot to improve on:
- Recruitment of talent from outside of WSU — I still only receive ~2 applications per year from domestic students interested in graduate school at HYPER. This is because most students go through their undergrad with their eyes down, never thinking about what they want to do, and where they can be trained do it. When it’s time for grad school they drop their names in the hats at the top 10 and take whatever project and advisor sound interesting. It doesn’t matter that liquid hydrogen connects clean energy with aerospace or is ripe for innovation, and it hasn’t mattered that we’re the only lab with that focus. Part of this professional leave was to visit many recruiting grounds to spread the word. This must change.
- Publications — we may have one of the lowest funding to publication performance ratios in the department. I have had several graduate students emphatically promise to publish a paper on their research before moving on. They have the work done, I know it’s publishable, but they move on without submitting and let me down. It shouldn’t be about fear; only one paper in lab history was ever rejected, and it was immediately accepted on resubmission to the same journal with new reviewers. Since the beginning of the lab I’ve emphasized to all new grad students that their future careers are now predicated on their research record, which is measured by publications. I also warn them that the work won’t get done once they leave. If it’s not published in a journal, it might as well not have happened. This must change.
- Professional Practices — I look back at my goal of a community of professional practice and realize how impossible it was without professionals present in the community. I would see some of the sloppy moves start to appear in the lab that I corrected nearly a decade ago. Best practices were not transferring between lab teams and successors. VCEA also has this culture where people wait until the night before something’s due to attempt their best work and what they end up with isn’t close. Many of the issues would get better with simple adoption and awareness of lean manufacturing philosophies and principles. However, I have failed educating the lab with these principles, until recently. And when we fix these, the practices should not be exclusive to HYPER. This must change.
- Collaborations — My friend Konstantin Matveev and I have had great collaborations over the years, but otherwise I’ve struggled to develop more collaborations, this area is pretty niche. Investing my time into department initiatives has not been a wise investment. This must change.
- Lab Presence — Even before the pandemic I was seldom in the lab and thereby not leading in ways analogous to lab member daily work. There was generally a lack of presence in the collaboration area but for fleeting moments when a critical mass of people working together would lead to magic. During the pandemic everything moved to MS Teams. While ancillary to daily activities, remote communication shouldn’t be the norm as this limits the bonus effect — the side questions and unintentional observations that are bonus to the actual work. This also allows both me and the lab to become sloppy. This must change.
We have some activity in each of these areas. But we have a ways to go in our goal of being the best lab in the west for developing professional engineering talent.
What will I change in the new space?
Last week HYPER began moving into the Central Receiving Building on campus. We’ll have full control over the top floor, including office spaces for focus, collaboration spaces, and an awesome manufacturing workflow. This move inherently addresses many of the problems above, but also presents new challenges. Here’s a list of initiatives to help promote the changes we need:
- Increased Lab Presence — The new building has an awesome office space that opens to both the management/grad student offices and the workflow. This will help maintain a professional presence in the lab space. But the new building is across campus with a considerable energy barrier for transit. We have plans to make an epic, campus leading collaboration design space between the graduate offices and the workflow. The goal is to make collaborating anywhere else on campus a waste of time. We’ve also made a commitment to schedule large blocks of time in the afternoon to be present in the lab — much like my old days at football practice after lunch. With all of our design, build, and test capabilities in a single space, cross talk between projects and experiments should increase.
- Increased Collaborations — my professional leave trip is coinciding with a neat change nationally where more and more people are suddenly wanting to talk about cryogenic hydrogen. This will naturally lead to collaborations and we finally have a space I’m proud to show off. We welcome our first Fulbright fellow from Australia later this summer. In terms of collaborating with colleagues, there is something a little different and special about inviting them to your building. This marks a transition where I need to be using the resources at my disposal to help mentor new faculty, and if I’m not I’m wasting opportunities.
- Professional Practices — You’ll soon here about a new training method Yulia Gitter outstandingly demonstrated before winter break. Call it a HYPER-Kata. Kata is Japanese for a system of daily practice in the martial arts. HYPER-Katas are lean manufacturing inspired workflows where a team is told they will be building a piece of lab hardware, they are all handed a part drawing with instructions, they then start the manufacturing line and are mentored in the first production step (learn one), they then do the step (do one), they then teach the step to the next in line (teach one), and so on down the line until their part is added to the final assembly and they start the cycle again. This approach teaches the lean principles of continuous improvement, just-in-time, poka-yoke, and the 7 wastes, among others. It also ensures that everyone in the lab is trained to operate many of our core processes, and that those core processes are ready for prime-time. We have a list of future HYPER-katas we’re planning for this year. I need to lead more of these. Branding the collaboration space with the 7 wastes will help everyone understand that we do not wait to begin work in HYPER. Professionalism is cumulative, and builds like a snowball. We’re getting there.
- Publications — Three changes are planned to fix our communication difficulties: 1) thesis defenses will not be scheduled until publications are in review at journals, 2) a new HYPER Communications manager will assist with the writing process, and 3) we will celebrate published journal papers in the collaboration space. On top of the increasing collaborations this will get us close to where we need to be.
- Recruitment of talent from outside of WSU — The above list will make a difference. But it won’t be enough. With our own space, and a new book, we’ll be bringing professionals into the lab on a yearly basis for training. We’ll return them with a life changing experience. Word will spread. I’ll help spread it via more targeted visits to 4 year private non-graduate schools in the Pacific Northwest. Recruitment is already changing for the better.
The key to leading the lab towards this change is me. I need to be more disciplined to lead HYPER:
- to care more about the people in HYPER,
- to coach more and manage less with the new proximity,
- to waste less where it matters and waste more when it will change,
- and to share more.
Finally, one of the biggest changes needs to come with how I communicate through social media and the blog. This post, like most, is really a note to myself being shared with the open community. To accomplish our ambitious goals, I can no longer be the voice of HYPER. The collective leadership of the lab is transforming in incredible ways, but even that won’t be enough. We need the help of outsiders. We need to be more invitational. So here’s an early start: If you’ve read this through, you are someone who cares and needs to be more involved. Please, reach out and let’s discuss how to make that happen: Jacob.firstname.lastname@example.org.