I would take it as a lesson on strategic planning and move forward. I grasped from my first supervisor that even in the small group there must be certain sub-projects planned according to BCG-matrix (yes, this marketing scheme works surprisingly well beyond business-models). Going va banque with a single idea or focusing on one problem is never a safe strategy, there always must be a fallback option.
Let me illustrate with the planing for the research group in chemistry using this terminology:
- "Cash cows": steady income of results from a well-established procedure. Usually the results of analysis of homologous components (spectroscopic studies, x-ray diffraction, etc.), or continuous collaborative work.
- "Stars": sudden success in complex synthesis resulting in a new compound with outstanding properties. The process is tedious, random and requires skillful scientists, but pays off a lot when finally works.
- "Question marks": observed side-effects in certain reactions which look suspiciously interesting, but might need further investigation.
- "Dogs": ideas which kind of work, but are trivial or hard to reproduce, or obtained using obsolete experimental technique or equipment.
Obviously, "cash cows" is a must-have, that is the only reliable option on the chart. Even if you start from scratch, do some related work aside to have a back up option. If you have talented and/or motivated people in the group, assign some of them to the "stars", but by no means the entire group. "Question marks" should be noted and kept track on in the background; often they are turning into "dogs", but sometimes they can be reassigned to the "stars".
This assures that either way you have some positive results at the end to present or even to publish. Also, you cover the entire field of your scientific interest, assuring your approach is complete and accurate in details. Long story short: manage, prioritize and divide.
One more thing: if I have a student assigned for a period longer than 3–4 months (typically to accomplish MSc, rarely BSc project), I'd usually ask how this person would like to work:
- Intensively: focus on a specific problem which involves complex sequential actions. Implies in heterogeneous working environment. Best fit for future "stars" projects. For example: synthesize, analyze and find the single-crystal structure of a new compound X. This requires work in different labs using various methodologies and contacting a lot of people.
- Extensively: perform routine parallel actions. Implies homogeneous working environment. Best fit for "cash cows" projects, also for students who are just passing by (not interested in a subject, but have to attend and perform). For example: spectrophotometric titrations or try-and-error syntheses. This implicates similar day-to-day activities with a little deviation in skill set.
I noticed this often helps to partially sort out psychological issues (e.g. between introverts and extroverts in a group), and people feel that they are treated more or less fairly from the beginning.