Lab meetings are an unavoidable part of lab life. I’ve worked or studied in seven labs in two countries, and in all of them a regular, usually weekly, meeting was part of normal lab function; I’d venture to say that it’s pretty much a universal. The format doesn’t change much from lab to lab, either. The “body” of the meeting consists of either everyone presenting a quick rundown of what they’ve been doing, or one person presenting their latest work in more detail, and general lab business is an “anyone got anything?” sort of affair tacked on at the beginning or end. No one has a defined role, there is no agenda, no records are kept. And then, of course, everyone complains about wasting time in lab meeting.
This entry was prompted by our (Hurlin lab) meeting on Friday, where we complained about wasting time and talked about ways to improve our meetings. It struck me that if you’re going to do something 50-odd times a year, you might as well get good at it, and with our meeting format currently being overhauled this is the perfect chance for me to try things out. I’m going to go over this with the spousal unit, who is something of an organization junkie/expert, and I’m hoping that the Lazyweb will chime in as well. I’d be very interested to hear about what works, or doesn’t work, in your lab meetings.
So why do we even have lab meetings? There seem to be three basic functions — that is, three things we want to achieve. First, it’s a chance to get everyone together for announcements, organization and joint decisions: do we need more gel rigs, who’s going to be the new safety officer, that kind of thing. Second, it’s a way to keep everyone, particularly the PI, in touch with everyone’s projects. Finally, it’s a way to get everyone’s feedback on your project and any problems you might be having — to get the combined lab brainpower focused on one question or set of questions.
Most of the information on the web relates to (*shudder*) corporate meetings, but I’ve picked out the bits I thought were applicable to lab meetings. Fwiw, here are most of the sites I used to put this list together.
1. Make sure you need a meeting.
Given the functions I listed above, we need the meetings, but perhaps not weekly? Would monthly be too infrequent? What about every two weeks? It probably depends on the size of the lab and how much time the PI spends actually in it, but for most labs I guess weekly meetings are best. Also, should we try to accomodate all three functions in one meeting, or would we be better off splitting the “admin” and “research” functions? Since “admin” doesn’t usually take much time, I think the fewer meetings the better.
2. Start on time and end on time.
Nearly every site I read emphasizes these two points, and that timekeeping is crucial. Another common suggestion is to give people defined roles, including facilitator (see below) and timekeeper. In small meetings, I guess these two roles could be combined, but there might be benefit in keeping them separate.
The question this raises for me is, how long should a lab meeting be? Ours start at 09:30 and can easily stretch until 12:00, which more or less wipes out half a day. I think lab business should take no more than 20 minutes (and often much less), which leaves presentations. One way to get them down to a more reasonable time might be to make them a bit less informal than we currently do (photocopied pages out of someone’s lab notes are not uncommon!). If the presentations were more structured, they could more easily adhere to a time limit. I think I’ll suggest that it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to present your last 6 weeks’ worth of work, especially if you focus on questions you want answered by the lab Hive Mind. Supposing that questions and discussion take up a full hour, that’s still a two hour meeting.
3. Have an agenda.
For a lab meeting, I think this means something more like set a format:
- Lab business first or last? (Last, so there’s incentive not to drag it out. We currently do it first, and tend to yap.)
- Who will speak?– one person at a time, or several, or everybody? I think this depends on the size of the lab. We have 6 people, so if only one person speaks we each present every 6 weeks. I think this is about right, but some of my coworkers would like to get the Hive Mind’s and Peter’s undivided attention more often.
- Should each presenter follow a general outline, so that talks have a structure? As above, I think so — it will help keep the presenter and the meeting focused on what we’re trying to achieve. I think I’ll suggest something along the lines of: background (what project is this again?), current results, problems, future plans.
4. Keep minutes.
Another nearly universal recommendation. Minutes can be used to start the meeting with action items from last meeting, which can be useful to nudge people along with their commitments. (In the same vein, action items should always come with an attached Person Responsible.) Minutes should be archived in a communal place (like our shared disc drive), so that everyone can refer back and you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. Keeper-of-the-Minutes is another role, like timekeeper and facilitator, that needs to be assigned or rotated.
5. End the meeting with a summary.
Mostly for lab business: what are we going to do? Who is going to do it?
6. Get feedback on whether the format is working.
We’ll be experimenting with these ideas over the next few months, so it will be important to keep track of what’s working. (I’ll report back here.)
7. Facilitation is crucial.
Universally acknowledged, and may well be the most important point. Having someone to keep everything on track seems to be critical for what I am trying to achieve here: avoiding timewasting. Some ideas that seem good to me:
- the facilitator shouldn’t take sides on an issue, but strive to find out what the consensus is (may be difficult in small meetings)
- the role of facilitator could be rotated around, so everyone shares the task (and if someone should prove to be especially good at it, they could take it up permanently)
- a good way to avoid sidetracks is to have a sheet of paper or whiteboard on which to “park” deferred topics
- a good way to encourage lurkers and dampen the dominant is to go round-robin and get everyone’s feedback as a way of finalizing a topic
So, that’s my first pass at improving lab meetings. Any ideas, Lazyweb?