How to hold an effective (lab) meeting.

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?

13 thoughts on “How to hold an effective (lab) meeting.

  1. Nice post! But I must confess to being one of the freaks that likes lab meetings – I did when I was in graduate school (where we called them ‘data club’) and I do now, with my own lab. My lab is small – there are six of us – and we usually just talk for about 15 minutes about random life stuff (how’s the marathon training coming? did you plant your garlic yet?) and then we talk for about 15 minutes about general lab stuff (safety, ordering, supplies, etc) – and then – in what is an usual twist: we have a poetry reading. My tech is a poet – and we’ve voted her Lab Poet Laureate, so she selects a poem every week and reads it (after a bit of an introduction with respect to the poet). It’s been great – we’re all becoming more knowledgeable about poetry, and I think it gets everyone thinking differently – a bit ‘out of the box’ perhaps (I try to remember to post the poem each week). Lately, we’re helping a graduate student in the lab get more comfortable speaking in public (in preparation for her first oral presentation at a scientific meeting) and so she’s been doing the poetry readings. It’s really helping her. So…after the poem, one person each week takes turn going into detail about their research – data update, questions, protocol development, whatever they need. Other than that, there is no formal agenda, and I don’t take notes (although my tech does from time-to-time). I just go and enjoy everyone, learn a bit – and hopefully provide solid input as well.

  2. I must confess to being one of the freaks that likes lab meetings
    Er, well, me too. I could sit around and talk all day, though.
    What I’m trying to do now is to get lab meetings to be something that everyone else enjoys, which seems to require that they not “waste time” — that they stay on focus and Get The Important Stuff Done. Since I like the science as much as the chat, this is fine by me; I just have to find a way to make it work.
    As for poetry in a lab meeting, I like the idea — I like poetry very much myself — but I have a feeling I would be laughed out of the lab if I suggested something similar. It would be considered too touchy-feely, or something; not analytical enough, too irrational and emotional, and so out of place in our lovely sterile Ivory Tower.

  3. I eased them in to the whole poetry thing. At first, I just asked everybody to write a haiku when they presented, related to their work – some were funny, some were pretty good – they even developed their own styles after awhile. Then I got the ‘Poetry Speaks’ collection of CDs, so we would listen to a poet reading their own poetry. Now that we have a lab poet laureate – she does the reading, and poetry selections. Everybody totally laughed and rolled their eyes at first – but here we are, a few years later, still doing the poetry thing. And you know what? When our lab poet is out for the day, I have more than one member of the lab volunteer to pick a poem for that day and read it – all on their own, no prodding. I’m thinking that soon – we’ll be ready to start reading and writing our own poetry. Now, wouldn’t that be something.

  4. Couple points:
    You need to talk about what you need to talk about. Make your meetings more efficient, and they will end more quickly. Do start on time, but expecting to end at a certain time is stifling.
    Meeting once a week is necessary in our office because there are sometimes people absent, which scuttles the meeting. So we actually meet 3/month on average. We only discuss projects once a month, but I think in your lab, it’s one person per meeting, yes? That seems like a good arrangement.
    The best way to make change is to tweak one little thing at a time, see if it works, then move on. If it were me, the first thing I’d do is take minutes. Just offer to take them, then distribute them after the meeting. Later, you can start going through the previous week’s minutes at the beginning of the meeting. This makes things tremendously smoother.
    Finally, sorry, but I’d be furious if there were poetry readings at a weekly meeting. I love a good meeting, but I hate having my time wasted, especially with something that has zero to do with my job. I suppose if I were meeting with poetry professors, then a reading would be cool, but otherwise, no.

  5. I don’t want to get into details, but I ran some of my ideas by the lab last Friday (060922). The response was overwhelmingly negative; people want to go on doing things the way they’ve always done them. So that’s that; and all I have to say about it in public is that I will not ever lend a patient ear to another complaint about wasting time in meetings.

  6. Couple of thoughts:
    1. Ohio State University, which is no slouch of a science/engineering school, has an annual poetry forum for scientists; see my comments on it at and info on the forum at Apparently the competition is pretty heavy. Anybody who thinks scientists are wasting their time with poetry is pigheaded. Science once produced truly literate scientists like Freeman Dyson and Lewis Thomas. What’s so bad about activities that might yield a few more like that? Wasting time, indeed. Hah.
    2. Learning how to run more efficient lab meetings is an incredibly important skill that no one ever teaches any one. I have lost uncounted hours of my life in lab meetings. Consider the fact that not all of your students are going to go on to careers as research faculty. It’s physically impossible with the current pyramid scheme we call academic research. Some of them are going to end up in industry, where they will take part in and eventually have to run some corporate meetings. But there, in corporate America, they will actually, at some point, get some training in how to run a meeting. Why not (gasp) talk to some colleagues over in the B-school and ask them for aome advice about running meetings? They do actually know some things.
    3. Nobody likes change. Everybody likes to keep doing things the way they have always been doing things. This does not mean the way things have always been done is right, useful, fair, or efficient. See: dominance of white males in science for example. See: dragging on of lab meetings that accomplish little for example.
    4. The facilitator can be the time keeper. Each meeting needs an agenda, which should list each item that will occur in the meeting, how much time is alloted each item, and what time each item on the agenda will commence. The facilitator must be ruthless.
    5. Another person can collect notes and comments on a whiteboard/blackboard/large notepad. THIS ROLE MUST ROTATE. Otherwise the one woman in your lab group will find herself magically slotted into the notetaking role. Because it’s “natural” for women to take notes while men have ideas. Have. Seen. This. Happen. Five. Thousand. Times.
    6. The resistance of your lab – did you just spring all this on them or did you try to explain why you wanted to make some of these changes? Maybe if you give them the rationale. Or, better yet – show them some research on why running meetings in certain ways is more efficient! Call on their scientific natures – ask them not to be unscientific about the way you all conduct lab meetings! Hee.
    7. Regarding everybody presenting their results – must this be done every week? Or can you just have one person present each week, and rotate through the group? Does everybody really have fabulous progress to report every week? So, how about: administrative details, current problems, research report from one person.
    8. And I would require that the administrative details be listed out ahead of time. Same with the problems. Because here’s the great thing about making a list: If you make the list, you will either find that (a) you can solve the problem while making the list, therefore it doesn’t need discussed, or (b) it really is a problem that needs discussed. If it’s (a), then it just needs to be an item for announcement, not a discussion. Saves time.
    Just my 28 cents worth…sorry to go on so long….

  7. sorry to go on so long

    Not at all — mi comments section es su comments section! Post here all you want. (I tried to set you as a trusted commenter, so your comments would post without moderation even if they have links in ’em, but that’s broken until the next MT upgrade.)

    Consider the fact that not all of your students are going to go on to careers as research faculty.

    To even say such a thing out loud is to declare oneself an outcast! This is the Elephant in the Faculty Lunchroom, the Thing Of Which We Must Not Speak. Grrr. /soapbox. For now.

    Why not (gasp) talk to some colleagues over in the B-school

    There isn’t one. I’d have to go to another university; Oregon Health and Science University offers only medicine-related courses (including biomed research PhDs). But it’s an excellent idea, and I could easily go down the hill to PSU and find someone perfectly willing to help.

    Regarding everybody presenting their results – must this be done every week?

    I wasn’t clear — we do as you suggest, that is, admin is followed by one person’s research report.

    did you just spring all this on them or did you try to explain why you wanted to make some of these changes?

    (Soundtrack: bitter, bitter laughter) It was their fucking idea!!! We spent a good chunk of our meeting the previous week talking about how much time is wasted in lab meeting and how we really should do something about it.
    So, while I appreciate all your suggestions, I don’t think I’ll be putting any of them to the test in this lab. But please keep the ideas coming, because I agree with you that running better lab meetings means running a better lab, and I might just make it up the food chain to a lab of my own eventually.

  8. O-o-o-o. If I had known you all would be here, I would not have come. Worse, I must confess I stopped by Pam’s site first. And Zuska’s before. Anyway, the topic attracted me.. er.. having decided to look in on Bill.
    You don’t say anything about the social situation in your lab. People sharing space and resources need to see and hear and smell and touch each other, to know what each other is doing.. to become ‘we’. If these contacts do not occur elsewhere (and your report suggests they might not), your group may disintegrate into a collection of mutually repulsive monopoles.
    Then, they will be used by those who ‘game the system’.
    I was in a research lab, whose regular wasted Thursday afternoon was outlawed by the new hot-shot from head-office, converted to weekly reports (which took as long to write), which were circulated (and took longer to read), until people gradually stopped writing and reading. Things, sharings and avoidings of collisions, dancing, about which people formerly knew from idle chatter and informal consulting, fell apart. The hot-shot gathered power to himself. The lab became dull and time-serving.
    Your case doesn’t sound like a hot-shot.. probably just some people who were uncomfortable or had some work to finish.. and mine probably didn’t know what he did, he just did what had worked, for him, in previous jobs. However, there is always somebody who finds it easier to manage information than work.
    Another possibility, is people in your lab, or somebody influential in the past, don’t want to start ‘something new’ on Friday. From 9:30 to 12:00 looks like, come in and check on Igor, a last minute review of reports, then meet until lunch-time. Unless your work runs 24/7, eg digging salt for the man or crushing rock for the county, it would make sense to plan four-day work-weeks, leaving Friday for a buffer and for reviewing results.
    If you need to report in order to share what you are doing, and if you think two hours is reasonable, then two plus one-half hours is not unreasonable. And I believe, given that need to report, it is unlikely that you will get away with less than half-hour rubbing noses, even if you formally suppress it.
    Anyway, don’t monkey with your meetings until you know what exactly it is that they do. OTOH it does not hurt to learn how to meet and, if there is somebody sabotaging the meeting, through ignorance, to head him off.
    .. The hot-shot may have been smarter than I give him credit. However, I believe those who sent him knew what he would do.

  9. In defense of lab meeting poetry readings: It generally takes up less than 10 minutes of the meeting – but in those 10 minutes it captures everyone’s attention, re-focuses them in a sense – and I really do feel that any/all creative processes contribute to a more creative science approach as well – I have found that our scientific discussions about on-going experiments, etc are made stronger by this small poetic intrusion.
    Plus, I really like poetry…and lab meetings – and I honestly think that my lab’s meetings are good ones. It’s a time for everyone to touch base…A time to say “is everybody okay?” and an environment is created in which someone can honestly answer that question.

  10. We have a dreadful time keeping a regular meeting schedule, because we have a formalized presenter-based structure, and nobody wants to do a meeting until they have something fully talk-worthy. Not much of the hive-mind stuff in our lab happens in meetings. Everyone has their own individual project, and people work very independently. When they get stuck, they either walk into the PI’s office for a troubleshooting session, or they get together on their own in the office or workshop space, or trade emails, or what have you. Meetings tend to be more of an informal peer review session on material that is nearing readiness for publication or for a formal talk at a conference or something.
    So, as the schedule-maker, it’s like pulling teeth to get any sort of regularity going. As such, I’ve moved most of the admin stuff to the mailing list and wiki we have set up, but I’m afraid that such things don’t get enough emphasis that way. I definitely have to answer and re-answer tons of admin and safety questions as a result. I want to just say “RTFM!” but I know that anything that isn’t is shoved right under their noses is just going to take a backseat to actual research work, at least until they need to know something in order to keep working.
    A regular meeting is a good way to do that nose-shoving, but the hassles of actually organizing it with a 20-person lab(and several of those 20 people having TA or hospital rotation responsibilities during the day), a PI who travels a lot, and a talk-based structure have sort of led me to a place of just dealing with being the personal information clearinghouse on all admin/safety issues. It is technically my job, after all, but that part of my job takes way more time from the other parts than I would prefer. But, it’s still better than the alternative of trying to hound people into having organized, regular, formal meetings.

  11. A lab meeting lasting two and a half hours sounds like a nightmare! We aim for 1hr.
    Another important benefit is to the presenter. The need to organize what you’ve done into a clear presentation promotes a lot of thinking and analysis that may have been skipped in the press of doing the experiments.
    I take (messy, incomplete) notes of each presentation and stuff them in the appropriate person’s file folder in my office. Having someone take and post minutes sounds like a good idea.
    A lab down the hall uses their section of the departmental wiki to store and share the Powerpoint slides of everyone’s lab-meeting presentations. Writing this reminds me that I want us to start doing that too.

  12. JD: I wonder if there’s a threshold size above which meetings just don’t work. We are about to stop having multi-lab meetings once a month; we did it all last year, with about five labs participating, and it is just too cumbersome to be productive.
    RR: oh for a workplace sufficiently web-savvy that we could have a dept wiki. I doubt that there are more than two people on this floor who know what a wiki is, and I’m one of ’em. I used my personal wiki to post a speaker schedule for a seminar series last year, and people reacted as though I’d done magic. If — big, big if — I make it up the food chain here, I hope my lasting contribution to the dept will be to yank it into the 21st C.

  13. Ah, the beauty of life in a small lab: one PI, one or two grad students. We met when we had something to talk about for an hour. We communicated briefly almost every day. It was fun.

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