Among the soft skills workshops I had the chance to attend during my PhD, there is one (more) which particularly inspired me: developing efficient teamwork competences.
For me, the workshop highlight was practicing group brainstorming. Of course I had heard about brainstorming many times, but was never properly introduced to the technique. For the workshop sake, we’ve been asked to brainstorm about “potential use of a paper clip.” Well, believe me or not, it was just impressive the quantity of ideas we generated just on this. Someone even suggested using it as a torturing tool!! I’m definitely not saying that we only had good ideas, especially this one ugh, but wow, I was surely not expecting that, so much creativity! And isn’t creativity something we need a lot in academia? Like to resolve technical issues or to come up with cool never-researched-before projects?
Back to my biology lab and with a kind push from the workshop teacher, I organized a brainstorming session with my colleagues. Given that the year before we had even forgotten to have a lab excursion, I suggested brainstorming about what to do for this year’s annual lab excursion. Not only experiencing the brainstorming power together was so much fun, we came up with so many cool ideas that the lab can pick from this list for like the next 10 years! So, what did we end up doing for lab excursion that year? Tree-climbing, hiking and BBQ by the lake. And the year after? River rafting :D
OK now, how to organize an effective brainstorming session?
Before all, one needs to understand that we should never ask “Who has a good idea?” because this will only block everyone’s creativity and makes everyone scared of saying something stupid. For effective brainstorming, the key is to go first for quantity, collecting as many ideas as possible, and only later evaluating.
This is a nice principle but doesn’t tell you what to do concretely. Indeed, brainstormings can easily become annoying and useless if for example people with strong personalities start a competition for generating ideas no matter how dumb.
- Tell people in advance and let them know the subject so that they’re prepared. One issue at a time = one specific subject to brainstorm on. Also tell them how long the meeting will be.
- It will need a facilitator to watch out for the time, to collect ideas and to make sure everyone participates.
- If possible, make it cozy, maybe informal depending on the subject, you could be standing, having a beer or some snacks, cakes, you name it.
- Prepare everything for people to write down their ideas and for the facilitator to collect and display them (paper, sticky notes, whiteboard, pens, color, etc.)
2 . Now for the brainstorming itself:
- The facilitator should quickly explain how the brainstorming is going to be run and should remind everyone that we’ll first collect ideas without judging, asking everyone to stay open-minded.
- Then ask everyone to write down their ideas on paper individually by giving them 2–3 minutes (time it, but stay flexible if you see that people need a bit more time).
- The facilitator then asks every person to tell its ideas, collecting and displaying these ideas on a board or something. Remember not to judge.
- Hearing everyone’s else ideas will trigger more ideas. Therefore, it needs a second time for individual brainstorming where people can write down their new ideas, let’s say again 2 minutes.
- Again collect all these ideas.
- You’re done! \o/
Indeed, sometime just this collecting phase can already take a full hour, especially if you’re many people in the group. Feel free to stop there and schedule another meeting for the evaluation. However, if you need your group to take a decision before the meeting ends, I’ll suggest having a 5–10 minutes break to refresh before engaging in the evaluation process. Just try to notice when a meeting is getting too long and people are getting annoyed.
After our lab excursion success, I organized a second brainstorming with my lab. Still in an informal setting (i.e. beers involved 🍻), but on a more serious subject: how to improve the team spirit in our lab and the institute. That day again not only we generated many ideas, it was such a tension-releasing discussion and it already increased our team spirit!
Reflecting back on all this, it strikes me how different I perceive “normal” lab meetings versus a meeting which implements the principles of effective brainstorming. During brainstorming sessions like these, I could feel people’s interest and energy, actively participating and taking part in the group. In normal lab meetings, I observe how some people hog the conversation while others never speak, probably coming from different personalities (extrovert vs. introvert), from fear of judgment, or simply from unwillingness to be here.
Once during my PhD, while visiting a university in the US, I attended a shared lab meeting from two labs. After half an hour, the guy who was presenting his project was still on the title slide… Why? Because the two lab heads just started interrupting, criticizing and already doubting the interest of the guy’s project just based on the title!! In the end it was mainly the two lab heads arguing while the guy presenting looked so embarrassed and failed to defend himself. I would have been just the same…
Why couldn’t we try to implement some of the brainstorming underlying principles into common lab meetings? Like to be open-minded, to foster creativity, to check that everyone engages in the discussion, to have a facilitator (doesn’t have to be the PI, people could even take turns), to have a time limit and not letting it slide in long painful hours, to remember that we are here to help the speaker in his/her project and not to brain block him/her, to have empathy, to distinguish between being critical versus being judgmental.
In conclusion, I think that brainstorming is not only an effective technique to collect ideas on a specific subject, it’s a powerful team-building tool and it can teach us a lot about meetings even in academia.
Thanks for reading and, please, dream with me about improving our experiences in academia, leave a comment below and sign up to my newsletter :) And if you’re looking for more ways to improve team skills in your lab, have a look at my project management resource for PhD students and supervisors!
If you’re a PhD student in Switzerland, make sure to check out the CUSO transversal program which organizes so many inspiring soft skills workshops like this one!
Further readings about lab meetings:
Regrouping the Group Meeting, on the Chronicle of Higher Education
By Jeffrey C. Grossman, a lab head who was looking for ways to improve his lab meetings:
“instead of telling everyone what I, as principal investigator, thought the new format should be, I decided to have it originate from the group itself.”
“These are the questions I posed: Why weren’t people contributing during our meetings? Why did they take their phones out? What did they think would make the meeting experience better?”
“That ‘building upon’ aspect to the new meetings is extremely important. In academe, we tend to take a ‘criticize first, ask questions later’ approach. After all, our earliest training teaches that critical inquiry is a foundational part of the scientific method.”
What to do at lab meetings?, on the DynamicEcology website
By Meghan Duffy, a lab head who has many great ideas of what to do in lab meetings other than having people presenting their project:
“Here are some of the things we do at lab meetings:
- Discuss new(ish) papers
- Practice talk
- Ethics: we’ve done a fair number of lab meetings at which we discussed issues related to ethics in science.
- Stats Boot Camp: We spent a summer having stats boot camps, which were definitely useful and are probably things I should revive.
- Presentation of new data:
- Miscellaneous topics:
- Elevator pitch:
- Non-academic careers:
- Publishing: this tends to be a spinoff from another topic, but we sometimes discuss the publication process, reviewing, and things along those lines at lab meetings.”