Good scientific discussions

The culture of meetings varies a lot between research teams. Most labs have a team meeting and a journal club, with a wide variation in frequency, duration and topics between labs. As the principal investigator, you want good scientific discussion in the team, but this comes at a cost that we often underestimate (I found Jason Fried's TED talk why work does not happen at work very instructive about this).

Our lab itself is an ongoing experiment and through trial and error we have learned a few things about scientific discussions that are worth sharing. Our first attempt to promote communication were 5 minute micro-meetings between two people. During this time, they were supposed to explain they will do during the day, and why. The meetings were twice a week, with a rotation schedule. Even if everybody liked the idea, it turned out to be unsustainable because synchronization between the two people did not happen naturally. At the time one got a 5 minute break, the other would be in the middle of a technical experiment and so on. After skipping a few meetings, the momentum was lost and they quickly died out.

Our second attempt was a synchronized 30 minute break around 5 o'clock. We would all go to the terrace, have a drink or something to eat, with no scientific intention. I realized after some time that this was disruptive of the workflow when I had to stay focused the whole afternoon. An inflexible 30 minute break is not always welcome, so this one died of a sudden death.

Our most recent innovation is a scientific discussion during breakfast. Once a week, we have breakfast together, arrange ourselves in groups of 3 or 4 and explain to each other the point of what we will do during the day. Pen and paper are very useful here, and they allow us to dig into the technical details. This takes about an hour, but it is less disruptive for the workflow because it happens first thing in the morning. The ritualization and the critical mass make it harder to skip than the micro-meetings. We do not have enough experience yet to evaluate the long term success of the breakfast meeting, but so far it has improved the exchange of technical information.


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