Objectives: writing backwards

In this post I’ll look more closely at an approach to objectives writing which underpins all the advice that I give about how to put these critical statements together most effectively.  The topic of writing objectives is covered extensively in this blog in all its different dimensions – how to write them FINER  or SMARTly, for example. To cut to the chase, the place to start the writing is at the end and the best and quickest way to do it is to write the whole thing backwards.  In my experience of working with hundreds of different researchers this not only helps very quickly to clarify what the project is about in detail but cuts the time it takes to write a great proposal in half.

As I have tried to describe in the most recent posts on the project objectives, these statements are the beating heart of the work, the place where all the thinking about the project crystallises and the bit that the ERC are actually interested in buying: they are the benefits and differences that you are promising to make.  The level of detail that the objectives need to contain is far higher than most researchers anticipate when they start and very often this part is not really given the attention it deserves or is pretty much overlooked entirely as the project moves from some general statements about the field directly down to the details of the implementation in the methods section.  The blog post on the ‘missing middle’ which is so common in many proposals explains in more detail what this problem , why it probably comes about and what to do about it.

Too often, in my view, researchers start where they are most comfortable and this tends to be with the methods as it tends to be what is on their mind in their daily work.  Questions about what to do come a bit more naturally than the questions about why a particular project might be interesting to funders.  And so many projects are build from the ground upwards based on methods and activities and perhaps, on good day, getting as far as the results that the work might produce.  However, this bottom-up approach often means that the thinking never gets as far the objectives – what it is all heading towards, what benefits it is going to deliver, why anyone might be interested in paying money for it: activities on their own are very rarely worth funding. Either the space runs out or the researcher imagines that a complete and credible description of what will be done with some attention paid to what that will deliver is what a project proposal is.  As I have written elsewhere, this type of work invariably leads to failure which in turn leads to disillusion and scepticism and the reinforcement of myths that the ERC and, in fact, all funding programmes are rigged or are random.

So, I think that planning bottom-up is not the way to proceed.  Far better, and far quicker to work top-down and backwards.  This approach has many advantages that I have dealt with elsewhere.  It allows you, for example, to put the project in the magical funding ‘Goldilocks Zone’ where all the many factors and tensions that feed into and play across the project and its location in its field at the precise moment when the project is being planned can be taken into account.  If you go bottom-up you tend to end up with what you already have, more or less, an accumulation of things you already more or less do or can imagine how to do and you have very little flexibility to change what an accumulation of good activities might look like or what it might add up to.  By going top down you can survey the field and propose what is likely to be the thing that the panels want to buy and then nudge this back as far as you need to for it to mesh with your profile and the money and time and institution etc. so that you can make the most attractive proposal possible while maintaining credibility.  Working top-down gives you much more freedom to choose what project you want whereas working bottom-up tends to give you the project that the weight of past work limits you to.  There are many other advantages of taking a fresh view and forcing a project into existence (ERC is about the only place you can do this) by hammering down your version of reality over the maelstrom of the state-of-the-art rather than searching around for objective  to try to finish off a worthy but probably uninspiring  edifice built on actions and good methods.

I’d recommend searching out hot spots in the field where what you can do and what would really set the evaluators alight meet and promising to make a big contribution to delivering concrete benefits to science in that area with three (as a maximum) significant breakthroughs for knowledge.  Once you have those in mind, sketch out what a really attractive change in the field would look like – write it down as if it were already there in front of you to be seen and measure and prodded with a stick – it is green, it smells like this and costs that much and performs about 100x better than our current sad efforts.  This might not be the project that you had thought that you might do but rather one that has been very actively constructed with the aim of winning in the particular competition you are engaged on – if you are joining in you might as well do it with winning as the only aim, in my view.

The objectives statements should be written as if the future has already happened, the new powers for prediction and control, ideally, will be described as if they were being observed first hand with quantities and qualities spelt out in as much detail as you can muster.  Of course, this process is really more like science fiction than science fact as they will be conjectures and fairly far future projections of what is possible, predictions in fact, and these are notoriously unsuccessful.  However, I recommend you make bold and unambiguous assertions of what the world will be like down the line.  Of course, in the planning phases of the proposal all the stuff about milestones and risk will show that you know that the world won’t unfold in a perfectly linear way, one thing after another but the objectives can’t carry that level of planning detail or be provisional in that way, or in any other way.  Give them something to like – or dislike, but at least let them decide why they are not funding it rather than join the very long list of proposals that just fade out of contention because no one can really tell what they are about.

Set these crystal clear statements out and the rest of the project will more or less write itself and this is why it is such a time saver to work top-down.  If you know where you are going to go at the end of the work then the ways to get there are much easier to describe.  Take the results that you’ll produce for example.  To get to a clear end point, to have at your disposal a new power of control or prediction for instance you will need a number of easily defined results that can be clustered up and pointed directly at the objective in a simple cause and effect way – or at least this is how it will be written down.  Objective one will be caused by this cluster of results, this group of results will lead directly to objective one – these and only these ones, the essential group of things with all the merely interesting ones shaved away.  If you go bottom-up, and I have seen this a lot, then often the proposal gets to mid way with a lot of deliverables and results coming out of some interesting activities which then have to go in search of a justification for their existence in the vague realisation that they are not on their own enough to carry the piece.  The objective then often becomes that they exist because they exist which may or may not be self-evidently interesting and is a question of luck really if they happen to fall into a hot area or if the evaluator has the energy to piece together the logic for you and wonder why this bunch of stuff might be worth spending scarce public money on.  Fare better to call results into existence for the simple job of reaching a clear objective than searching round for one once you have things on hand.  In bottom-up-made proposals this work of justification is often too difficult to do and, so, is mostly not done and we find the objectives-free proposals that I see so often.

And the same thing will apply to the activities and methods.  To get to the small set of necessary and sufficient results to reach the objective only a very clearly defined set of things need be done and no others.  The objectives pull the project upwards at all levels and provide the structure that runs through the whole thing. ‘ I will do this and this and this and only those things to deliver this small set of results to reach the objective’ is the logic to apply.  Once again, if you start from the bottom with interesting activities it is impossible to know which and how much and for how long to do them and impossible to describe them persuasively to funders as they won’t be in and of themselves interesting to them, although the you, the researcher they might be the most fascinating and necessary things in the world.  And once they have been done you’ll still be left with the problem of finding an argument to fit them into which will sell – far better, I think, to start with the saleable proposition and find ways to reaching it than to start with ways of doing stuff and retrofitting a rationale.

So, with clear headlines pulling the whole thing forward like a locomotive or the head of a comet the whole thing will be streamlined and only those parts of  all the possible parts of the field can be included in what is, after all, quite a small project with necessarily limited scope and ambition.  In conclusion I’d recommend: writing backwards from bold and complete descriptions of a future (better) reality; including only that which is both necessary and sufficient to get the job done (i.e., reach the objectives); discard without mercy all that is ‘merely’ interesting; making sure that everything is included that is necessary to get the job done (so, checking for completeness) and avoiding trying to build the project out of that which is closest to hand or the work of the everyday grind that the ERC is designed offer temporary respite from.

Building bottom-up brings to mind the old joke about a local responding to a lost tourist ( I won’t locate it in the conventional national stereotype) when asked how to get to a certain capital city – ‘Well, sir, if I were you I wouldn’t start from here!’