summary of thread on productive lab meetings

Alexander L. Friend alf2 at Ra.MsState.Edu
Sun Apr 4 17:24:29 EST 1993

Due to the interest expressed, I am posting this to the list.


Summary of thread on holding productive lab meetings
(revised: 04 April 1993)

Initial posting (14 March, 1993):

Casting the net.
I am presently trying to revitalize an ecophysiology lab meeting I
have been convening for the past couple of years and am looking for
ideas.  I remember reading an article in Science, within the past
year I believe, about the most productive labs and seem to remember
some discussion of meeting format in that article.  Has anyone seen
this?  Alternatively, does anyone have any ideas or resources on
how to hold productive group meetings/brainstorming sessions?
To get things started, I would propose the following guidelines:
(1) Know the objective/goal of the meeting, (2) Be sure all
participants have something to gain, or are equally at risk --
although this may be tricky with mixed faculty/graduate students--
Thanks in advance for your ideas on this subject.  I will summarize
any responses and post to this group.
Alex Friend
Assistant Professor of Forestry
Mississippi State University
Internet: alf2 at Ra.MsState.Edu


--Thanks to all respondents.  Most responses have been edited to
some extent to trim the size of this posting--

FROM: Sandra.Webster at

Here at the University of Michigan, we strongly encourage Total
Quality Management (TQM).  Most of our staff has attended TQM101
and TQM102.  From that, one of the things we learned dealt with
having productive meetings.  Some of the things included are:

1)  Always have an agenda listing the purpose of the meeting and
have time limits, something like:

Purpose:  To continue the discussion on the effects of the Future
Computing Environment on our customers.

    5  Min:   Introduction

    15 Min:   New Business 

    20 Min:   New Discussion

etc. Someone should also be the timekeeper and let the group know
when time is up.  At that point, everyone can decide on whether to
continue and take time from else where, or stop and go on with the
next topic.

2)  Almost all of the meetings have "Rules of Conduct".  Simply put
up a large blank sheet of paper on the wall (tape it up) and write
down what rules that group wants to follow.  The rules that our
group came up with are:

1.  Get input from everyone
2.  Practice Share Responsibility and Teamwork
3.  Criticize/Comment on ideas ... Not people
4.  Be open-minded
5.  Show flexibility
6.  Share your knowledge/ideas
7.  Practice group participation
8.  Respect each other's time/Be on time
9.  Set expectations which are reasonable
10. Have a sense of humor ... have a good time
11. Focus on Customers
12. Practice Constructive Listening ... Don't Interrupt

Remember, these are ones that belong to our group and work for us.
Every group works differently.  

Along with that, any items that are ever written down are always on
the large print paper (flip chart to be exact), hung on the walls
and each item is written down in different color marker.  This
makes it easy to read, all the ideas are available for everyone to
see, and anyone can write stuff down.

3)  Depending on the size of the group, you may want to install a
"parking lot".  This is an area on the wall somewhere, where
members can write down questions on a post-it note and stick it
onto the parking lot.  This way, a person who may have a question,
but doesn't want to speak up in front of everyone, can still ask. 
Here, it's not always a good idea to ask questions with all the
management staff listening, so I usually write a post-it and 
they never now who that question came from.

I hope I've helped ... if you have any further questions, let me



It makes a big difference how many people are at the meeting.
You can do some things with a small group that you can't do with a
large group and vice versa.  One cardinal rule: Don't waste
people's time with aimless chit chat.  Keep the information per
unit time high and people will get involved.  If you have a diverse
group, make sure things are put in context.  This is especially
important when students are presenting.  They think that everyone
already knows what they're doing so they start by talking about the
details.  Make sure they don't.  If you have a small group, have
everyone summarize their week's results.  I think this works better
than frequent major presentations by single people.  For a large
group, a major speaker (with something new and significant to say)
with highlights from several others works better.  It also helps to
make sure the meetings start promptly and end quickly once the
discussion begins to drag.



To put "all participants... equally at risk", you might try the old
idea of sending all participants the subject of the meeting's talk
a week or so ahead, but choose the main speaker randomly at the
start of the meeting. That way, everyone reads up on the topic, and
can comment meaningfully on it from their own perspective.  This
assumes, of course, that the topics are general enough that every
field has a perspective to offer on the meeting's topic. (E.i., no
topic like,"Discuss Nietzsche's theory on consciousness", but
"Comment on recent developments in AI as it relates to your
specialty" should work for a reasonably broad group.)


FROM: jal6 at

We have a number of weekly meetings here at BTI that are lab,
project, or program oriented.  The risk factor comes from the
communications styles of those involved.  For instance, I've found
that if responses are constructive and positive, there is very
little risk.  The relationship between students or technicians and
faculty is well known and there is little to be gained by
belittling a question or presentation, even if it is raised by a
novice (read: early grad student).  We most often work our meetings
as rotational--giving responsibility for each meeting to a
different person.  For instance, at a program level, the
responsibility for a presentation and discussion rotates among our
approx. 15 projects. At the project and lab level, it rotates among
the members.  So, a lab meeting might be chaired by a graduate
student and the topic might be measuring carbohydrates in plant
tissues.  In the modeling group, the topics revolve around issues
that need to be resolved with TREGRO.  Each person takes a turn. 
It seems to work well, provide a 'safe' environment, and assures
that people have an investment in the meeting.  We've also had a
series of program meetings where people make presentations about
topics that are not their specialties--like a journal club, but not
as focused on a single research issue.


FROM: inghame at

In our ecology group here at Oregon State we have lab meetings
every Friday afternoon.  The things that tie us together are common
interests in plant-microbe interactions and restoration.  Topics
usually are what one person has been up to lately, and then a
pre-lim question for one of the up-coming grad. students facing the
exam.  The grad student gets first crack at answering the question,
then everyone else gets a shot at it.  Then the prof that asked the
question gets to say what answer they were looking for.  We've
written grant proposals within this group as well.  Sure gets the
creative questions going. 

In another group, larger and more formal, each quarter we send out
a questionnaire

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