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A Formula for Perfect Research Project Meetings

Running scientific research meetings is not that different from running any other type of business meetings. There is usually an agenda of some description, the meetings usually run over time, and it’s the usual few people who end up doing all the work while everyone else complains that they have too much to do. Sound familiar? Are you nodding and rolling your eyes? I know, I know. It’s not easy to change this, it may not be within your power... Let’s pretend for a moment that you can do something about it. Let’s pretend you can start with your own group meetings.

Productivity journals and bookshelves are full to the brim with good advice about how to make meetings run more smoothly, run on time, and how to get everyone to do their share of the work. This material is rarely read by researchers, who think they know what they contain, and who doubt that the advice is applicable to academic research. However, the research groups I have met who have implemented productivity measures in their meetings get a lot done, and the measurable impact of their work is significant. Those that don’t can still be inspirational in their own way, but you do end up wondering how and when anything gets done in their groups, and how much more impactful their teams would be if they adopted some best practices.

The formula for running the perfect research project meeting is simple. The articles (hundreds) and books (20) I’ve read on this topic can be summarised in these four points:

  • Purpose: Have a clear purpose to each meeting, include impact on the agenda

  • Engagement: Make sure everyone knows why their attendance is needed, and what role each plays in achieving research impact

  • Freedom and Clarity: The chair needs to foster a safe space and ensure relevant and accurate information is exchanged and understood

  • Records: Minutes and action points are taken and shared with everyone, including those who could not attend.

Meeteor, a company dedicated to helping its clients run successful meetings, have a “desired outcome” practice where the chair of the meeting clearly states why the meeting is being held and what decisions need to be arrived at by the end of the meeting. This is a good strategy to have, and when you bring it in, ensure that team members are clear about their contribution to, gain from, and their expected follow up action from the meeting. This level of engagement increases trust within the team, improves productivity, and meetings don’t seem so pointless when everyone knows why they are there and how they can help.

To help foster a safe space, ground rules should be agreed upon from the start. These can include polite interruption of rambling thoughts, requesting clarity of information, and the freedom to ask as many “why” questions as needed for everyone to be clear about the next steps. When formulating ground rules, it is often useful to know the history and culture of the group, and to work these into the ground rules. For groups who have worked together for a long time this can be tricky, don’t be shy of bringing in a trained facilitator to help change, or re-energise, the culture of your meetings. The final point is about taking a record of the meeting, and this is crucial not only for accountability but also for keeping track of how much everybody is contributing to the group. The minutes should be an accurate summary and include action points, and ideally would be taken by an external person so that the team can focus on the discussion.

Whatever your context, however many people are in your meetings, wherever you hold them, there is a lot to be gained from always having a stated purpose for each meeting that includes impact, an engaged group of people to meet with who feel secure and useful to the group, and who can refer back to the records to remind them about their expected action points, hopefully before the deadline!

Sawsan has a PhD in plant science (University of London), worked in bioinformatics during her first postdoc, and from there to medical genetics after a family relocation to Miami, Florida. She was the first director of engagement for computational science at the University of Miami, while still teaching both bioinformatics and team science. Now Sawsan is affiliated with the University of Exeter, and runs an independent consulting business in collaboration and innovation. Check out her website for useful resources, and follow her on Twitter @SawsanKhuri and LinkedIn.


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