The Surest Way To Fail

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The Surest Way To Fail

I recently failed on a grant application attempt. My team and our collaborators worked very hard on that application, which was -actually- itself a resubmission of a previously unsuccessful one. After the reflex swearing that accompanies any failed attempt, I did what I always do after the temperature returns back to normal. I did a post-mortem of the situation to try and learn for the next attempt. And indeed, as always, there was a lesson to learn. Moreover, as it turned out, we did the same mistake twice, once with the original application and once with the second application. The mistake was that we did not have an end-game plan for the application process. To add insult to injury, I missed the opportunity to avoid this mistake; I had the right tool at hand (more on this later), but we did not use it.

This seemingly trivial logistics error resulted in the first application going beyond a budget threshold. In turn, this meant that it was ranked and compared against other much larger applications. As ours was thought, designed and built as a small one, it fared worse than those applications that -from the outset- were engineered as big grants. Our logistic mistake meant that we were small fish swimming with sharks. A few months later, when the resubmission opportunity arose, the team -in the rush- also did not agree on an end-game plan and again, our budget fell just outside the threshold by 3%. This time, we failed not at the review or panel stage. We failed because, with 10 minutes to spare before the deadline, we decided not to submit as to avoid the same fate. Thus we failed because we did not turn up. 

Thus, the lesson learnt from this sorry state of affairs is that the surest way to fail is to turn up to the wrong party or worst, not to turn up at all.

I went to do a bit more digging. I wanted to check how many times something like that happened to me before in the 20 years since I have been writing grants; how many times I wrote a grant and failed to submit. Although I had vague memories of this happening before, I was not expecting to see the pattern that emerged: I had written -either as a sole investigator or as part of a team- multiple grants and left them unsubmitted. Yes, not all of them were 100% finished when left abandoned, but many were written to 90%, even to 95%, of completion. 

Now lets put this in perspective: my success rate is ~ 1 in 5. That is, I need to have 5 grants in the oven for 1 of them to come out nice and yummy, with the other 4 either overcooked or unpalatable. In this calculation, I never used to include the (almost) finished but never submitted grants – failures in every other way. When I do include those grants in my stats the numbers are bad: my success rate drops to ~ 1 in 7, that is from a 20% success rate to less than 15%.

There are several reasons why I and others don’t finish what we start, chief amongst them is procrastination, which is fueled by many factors such as boredom, fear of failure, self-doubts, lack of discipline, perfectionism, inability to “divide-and-conquer”, analysis paralysis, work overload, etc.

Luckily, there is a large body of scientific research on procrastination that consistently shows that there are ways of conquering it. Two techniques that I find illuminating are described in Richard Wiseman’s book “59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot“.  

Wiseman tells us that individuals who, upon setting themselves some goal (e.g. “submit the grant before Christmas”), make a detailed plan of action, communicate their goal to their social network (partner, spouse, friends, colleagues, etc), identify the positive changes that reaching the goal will have in their lives, reward themselves along the way and record progress as they advance towards their goal, are significantly more likely to succeed than individuals who do not carry these steps. The other technique Wiseman presents, which helps overcome inaction, is to visualise oneself achieving success but, crucially, this visualisation exercise must be done in quite a specific way. That is, it is less a matter of imagining some hypothetical rose-tinted scenario and more about being able to balance the perceived potential benefits of achieving a goal with the likely difficulties one will find in the pursuit of that goal. The author argues that one must clearly and succinctly (1) write and describe the intended goal; (2) write a few words about both the improvements to one’s life that will result from achieving the goals and also, in a few words, any significant roadblocks in the way to success; (3) elaborate on both the benefits and the stumbling blocks in the way to success and summarise ways to overcome these.

In his wonderful book “The Formula – The Universal Laws of Success“, renowned complexity science researcher Albert-László Barabási details years of data-driven research on what makes people, teams, companies, etc., successful. He and his team derived five laws of success. The fifth law can be simply expressed, and when put simply, might sound -perhaps- a bit obvious: “With persistence success can come at any time”.

I believe that when you combine Wiseman’s and Barabási’s insights, namely: (1) have a plan you believe in and (2) persist, you have a powerful grant hackers combination.

So… remember the grant I failed to submit? well, we are going to be persistent and we are going to send it at the next available call. This time, however, we will do one thing differently. We are going to give us the time and space to use the “Grant Hackers End-Game Checklist”, a tool I created a while back to avoid – precisely- the kind of mistakes that I referred to earlier.

The End-Game Checklist is a simple way to implement Wiseman’s advice calling for a clear plan to achieve one’s goals. The checklist also captures some of the potential stumbling blocks one might find when preparing a grant application. This bookkeeping tool will help your team to stay aligned and to keep the grant’s application process in sight. Most of the entries in the checklist are self-explanatory except -perhaps- for the second item, the “Grant Hackers Scoring Card”, which we will discuss in future posts.

A plan for finishing and submitting your grants

In “The Formula”, Barabási says:

Successful people engage in project after project after project. They don’t just count their winnings; they buy more lottery tickets”.

Albert-László Barabási in The Formula

So, go on, don’t’ hand victory to your reviewers without putting a fight, write an end-game plan for your grant, finish it off and send it!

As for me, well, I will start using a more accurate success rate metric that also includes completed but unsubmitted grants…

Creative Commons License
Grant Hackers “End-Game Checklist” by Natalio Krasnogor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Image by Darwin Laganzon from Pixabay

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