Is being “busy” a good thing?

Ask people from Gemini how they’re doing and the response you’ll most often
hear is “Busy”.  This response begs the question: Are we really busier than
other observatories, or do we just like to think we are?  I suspect it’s a
little bit of both.  (I’m picking on Gemini and exaggerating a bit here,
but the same thoughts apply to many workplaces, I’m sure.)

It’s true, people are busy, but it’s more than that. Being busy is part of
our culture. There’s an advantage to that. If you’re busy, you’re working
hard and progressing your company.  On the other hand, if you’re busy, you don’t
have time for everything on your plate; you’re more free to select items
you want to do and discard the rest.  If you’re busy, you don’t have to
take the time to think about long term goals and strategies; you’ve got
plenty on your plate that’s due now.  If you’re busy, you don’t have to
take the time to communicate and explain your plans; people who need to
know will know; the others don’t need to be distracted.

Clearly there’s a tactical advantage to having a culture of being busy.
Yet, as I hope is obvious, there is a strategic price to pay for this cultural state
as well.  Some tasks don’t get done and there can be little control of
which ones do and which ones don’t. Tasks that seem important now often see
more activity than tasks that might make the observatory a better place in
the future.  Sometimes easy tasks that can be done now get worked on before
harder tasks that have a later payoff.  People stop informing others about
what they are doing and there is therefore less alignment and buy-in for
some activities than there might otherwise be.   People who facilitate
communication and joint problem solving through significant social
interactions  can find themselves under-appreciated and often leave to find
a place where they can work to bring people together as a team.

There is clearly a cultural reason for Gemini’s busyness, but is there
another cause? Are we simply doing more with fewer people than are other
observatories?  Gemini’s staff size is larger than those of other
observatories by some measures, comparable, by others. Our queue system and
need to support two facilities on two significantly different locations
might justify some increase in staffing compared to other similar
facilities.  As a result of the UK pullout from Gemini, we are reducing our
staff size and this effort will certainly mean some people are asked to do
additional work while our transition to a leaner operating state is
underway.  So, there may be some truth to the idea that our staff is
imply too small, but I want to consider what alternative explanations might play a role as well.

It might also be that Gemini staff are simply doing (or attempting to do)
too much.  Comparing Gemini to other facilities, though, it’s not obvious
that we are doing a whole lot more than anyone else is. Yes, there’s the
queue and our dual-site support need, but this effort is pretty much
accounted for in our staffing levels. (Although it is possible we aren’t
staffing as much as we need to do in these areas.)  If we assume, though,
that we’re not staffed too small and we’re not doing more than other
observatories, is there another possible non-cultural cause for our

One key difference between Gemini and the other 8-10m telescopes is its
ownership.  While the users of the other telescopes are largely dependent
on that telescope, Gemini’s communities either have access access to other
comparable facilities or a small enough percentage of Gemini’s time that
they don’t feel they own the observatory.  With no direct sense of
ownership of Gemini, the external Gemini community is less involved with
the observatory than they might otherwise be.  The fact that our governance
is complicated and areas of relative responsibility can be poorly defined,
makes it even more difficult for Gemini users to know how to contribute to
the observatory, even if they wanted to.

Gemini’s procurement structure also inhibits our community from feeling
ownership of Gemini.  We end up partnering less with our community members
than we do working as a customer of their services and products.  As a
result, our development efforts require more internal resources than they
might if we had more in-kind support form our community.
New instrumentation for Subaru and Keck, for example, are often initiated
by the universities that use the telescopes – not normally the case for
Gemini.  Instrument teams for the other telescopes often support instruments
in operation and write reduction software for end users – all things Gemini
usually does itself.

The cultural aspect of Gemini’s busyness has a good side – a dedication to
the observatory and a willingness to work hard. If we could keep that
aspect of our culture and add long term strategy formation, efficiency
improvements, and community, communication, partnership, and engagement,
then you have a pretty exciting observatory.

In addition, to better leverage our strong community, the next partnership agreement
could be structured with in-kind contributions and direct in-kind
community investment in Gemini, rather than cash contributions and a Gemini
obligation to distribute development money back to the partners in the same
percentage as it was contributed, as we do now.  This approach would help
build a sense of community ownership of Gemini and will allow more work to
get done for Gemini, but not directly by Gemini employees. This approach
will also engage our community more fully with our staff and encourage more
communication and strategic thinking.  Gemini can lead its class, but we have to not only modify our culture of busyness, but find better ways to leverage the utility of our community.

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3 Responses to Is being “busy” a good thing?

  1. rachelm says:

    You’re right, “busy” is seductive. Thinking about the future, where you and your projects and the organization should be going, can be hard. If you’re busy then you don’t have to make time for all that stuff. You have plenty of things that need doing *right now* and you must be gratifyingly important if everyone’s asking you for so much.

    I don’t know whether we as an observatory try to do more with less or what. But on an individual level, presumably we try to hire conscientious people who want to do a good job. People like that are always going to find more and more work that needs doing, especially in an environment that seems to encourage a general feeling of busyness. If you’re not stressed out then you must be a bit of a slacker, right?

    It’s good to see someone thinking ahead to what the next partnership agreement might look like. Can you give some examples of the kind of in-kind contributions that might work?

  2. Scot says:

    If you’re not stressed out then you must be a bit of a slacker, right?

    That’s the key, isn’t it? It’s funny how we tend to make time to stress out about the now stuff, but often not to plan ahead and strategize for the future stuff. I also think the simple fact that to many of our projects are not completed on time is an indication of the inefficiencies of doing too much. (Let alone the question of work/life balance and healthy employees. I admit I feel a bit guilty any time I put only an 8 in my time sheet for the day – unless of course it’s a weekend. 🙂 I don’t consider this a good, or sustainable thing.)

    As for the next partnership in-kind contribution model … there are several paths one could think about. For instrumentation development, there’s something like the ESO model where the partners chip in the labor while the observatory pays for the hardware. We could also think about strengthening our ties to the large research facilities and labs in our partner countries and jointly develop new detector/controller systems; efficient, low-vibration cooling systems; adaptive optics; technology exploration, etc. A simple thing we could do, even within our current model, is to contract with the instrument building team for long term support, maintenance, and upgrades.

  3. rachelm says:

    I like your ideas. Actually, I don’t have a strong opinion about the specific things you’re suggesting, I just like the fact that there are people who don’t take our current working model for granted. It will be interesting to see if the people at the top can make any innovative and creative things happen over the next few years, or whether it will just be business as usual and reacting to all the “stuff” that’s bound to come up.

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