Solving the Science Project

Just about any business or organization has science projects.  I don’t mean the cool R&D work done with lab coats in an environmentally controlled environment.  I mean the esoteric, generalized, idea generated by a boss requiring hours of meetings, data crunching, and speculation on outcome to answer.  The science project is typically born during contemplative discussions, strategy sessions, or a visit by the “good idea fairy”.  They may or may not be of value, however, since the boss has asked for an answer, you’re on point to deliver.

Science projects may begin with a seemingly simple question, for example, “determine when failure will occur in specific infrastructure components, or when organizational operations will cease.”  On the surface, a seemingly simple question.  But how is this data to be presented?  What level of detail is needed?  How do you define failure (through who’s lenses are we evaluating this)?

Solving the science project is hard because it usually comes with little guidance, a lot of expectation, and a tight timeline.  These daunting constraints, however, can be overcome by leading with a process.  That process, naturally, is the scientific method.

The Science Project Method

The science project will become the black hole of your time and resources if you don’t have a solid process in place for leading the effort.  Too often, people react to requests from the boss by throwing time and people at the question.  Unfortunately, the rush to answer the mail too often results in failure to answer the ill-defined question.  The result is frustration by those doing the work and more time being invested on the project.

However, applying the scientific method in answering the question provides the rigor necessary to focus resources and thought.  It also ensures there is a solid foundation beneath the results ultimately provided to the boss.  The process looks like this:

Ask a Question.  Yes, the question has already been asked by the boss.  You now need to (1) ensure the question is understood and (2) framed in a way that resembles a problem statement.  All problem-solving methods have “define the problem” as step number one.  On the science project, you need to be as clear as possible on what is being asked or what the problem needing to be solved is before moving on.

Do Background Research.  Once the problem is identified, begin collecting the data and doing the research.  Assemble the subject matter experts needed to fill in your gaps in knowledge and experience.  Amass the raw material needed to build possible answers.

Construct a Hypothesis.  With the information you have on hand, generate a proposed answer.  It might be right.  It might not.  It’s a hypothesis.  Whether it’s right or not, get an answer down on paper so you and your assembled team have something to work with.

Test Your Hypothesis with Experiment.  Take the answer you have to others who are not involved in answering it for a review of your logic and research.  I call this a Vector Check.  Before investing any more time in generating the final answer, get input from others who can see your blind spots, flaws in logic, or additional input you need to provide.

Analyze Your Data and Derive a Conclusion.  With the vector check(s) complete, look over the data you have and generate the solution to the science project.

Communicate Your Results.  The moment of truth…the briefing of results to your boss.  Concisely convey the results to the original question, however, also restate the original question and touch-on the process used to arrive at the results.  Doing both, in addition to giving the answer, conveys that a process was used to generate the answer.  This is vital if your boss isn’t familiar with your decision-making skills and the trust-level isn’t above their threshold.

As a leader a part of your job is to make order out of chaos.  Using the steps of the scientific method to lead the effort solving questions you’ve been handed, provides the rigor necessary to give structure to your thoughts.  And since science projects are most often generated in unstructured fashion with no clear guidance, applying the scientific method provides your boss with an answer founded on a structure, a process.  So your boss may not like the final answer, but they can’t discard your logic process for arriving at the answer.

The Scientific Method is a wonderful tool as long as you don’t care which way the outcome turns; however, this process fails the second one’s perception interferes with the interpretation of data. This is why I don’t take anything in life as an absolute…even if someone can “prove” it “scientifically.   Cristina Merrier

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Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PMP
The Engineering Career Coach

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