Looking back and ahead together – lab evaluation and planning

Work never stops, does it. All the more it’s important to remember to step back and look at the big picture regularly. The end of a year is a good time to look back and evaluate events and developments. And, of course, it’s a good time to talk about what’s coming next. Here, I make the point that it’s worth doing that together with the entire team.

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This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
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Chances are you feel like many — the year ends too fast, as usual. Weren’t there all these things you wanted to do? In our fast-paced jobs, we’re quick to drown in everyday responsibilities and forget the bigger picture.

Levels of planning

Evaluation and planning for your research group have two important dimensions: the hierarchical level and the time horizon you’re planning for.

Lab vs. people perspective

Once you’re a PI, you can’t just plan for yourself. Now you are responsible for some graduate students who have at least one clearly defined goal — obtaining a PhD degree. And, viewed more from your perspective, they have another clearly defined goal — finishing the work on your grant.

But when you lead a group, there is another new planning level. Now you have to plan the trajectory of your research lab — as an entity independent of the people in it. This may sound weird at first; but think about it: many lab members will join your group for a very limited amount of time, namely for their qualification as a PhD or for a two-year Postdoc. Your lab will retain its identity when these group members leave and new ones arrive.

So, you have to evaluate and plan what your lab stands for. What kinds of research does it do? What kind of methods does it use? What kind of work environment does it provide? These are all questions that interact with your own and your team members’ work, but really concern something beyond individual people.

Time perspective

To avoid being sucked into daily chores and losing the overview, it’s important to regularly evaluate and plan beyond today. There are some good formalized approaches, such as Agile Results and Getting Things Done.

These approaches suggest to schedule time for planning at different levels: weekly planning, monthly planning, yearly planning, and 5-year (or even longer) planning. In today’s post, I’ll focus on the latter two. Long-term planning is necessary to define the general direction of where you want to go. Once you know where you want to go in the next 3-5 years, you can then set goals for the coming year.

The 3-5 year perspective is important: think duration of grants, duration of PhD programs, and tenure. Karen Kelsky, in her book The Professor Is In, has a process to plan the next five years in great detail (besides many other very useful things, but that’s for another post). For instance, she suggests writing down conference dates, planned paper submission dates, grant endings etc., so that you have a detailed overview over what will be going on. Though this scheme, and others such as Agile Results, too, are worked out for the personal level, you can easily transfer them to the group/lab level.

The yearly perspective breaks the 5-year perspective down into something you can actually handle. And, it allows evaluating whether you’re on schedule for the big plan.

Looking back together

I think it is important to have higher-level evaluation and planning conversations with each team member on a regular level, and I’ve previously explained how I do this in my lab in half-yearly evaluation meetings.

But for the team/lab perspective, it’s important that lab members identify with the group, so that everyone strives for common goals and helps together. Therefore, last year I started taking some time in our weekly group meeting to look back and plan ahead together as a group.

Together, we created a mindmap in which we collected all events and achievements of our lab, or of individual lab members, such as papers, conferences. The map also contained all the people we’d been in touch with — students who had worked as assistants or written their BSc/MSc thesis with us, talk guests, and collaborators. And we listed every experiment we’d worked on and methods we’d used or newly acquired. We then added branches about things that had been unexpected, everyone’s biggest success, and we discussed whether there were any successes that had not received appropriate appreciation by the team (or its supervisor).

You might think (as I initially did) that there isn’t that much that can go on such a mindmap that isn’t already clear to everyone. But I, as well as my team, were surprised about how big the map was in the end.

Looking back together at the year’s perspective helps to get away from the feeling that it’s never enough and we’re always too slow. I find it important to emphasize the achievements of the group as a whole, as well as of each member; I’ve found that they are all too quickly forgotten.

Looking ahead together

Looking back also opened discussion about what we hadn’t achieved, and what we thought could be done better in the coming year. This can be important, because general topics that concern the lab as a whole more than individual members often aren’t a topic of individual evaluation conversations. As a PI, you can get very valuable suggestions from the group, and knowing what the general vibe is in the group helps making decisions about whether change is necessary.

During the year, we followed up on these discussions, first in a group retreat, and then in group discussion days (I’ve talked about those here). The idea, for all of these things, is to put the group into view to allow development beyond everyone’s individual goals and career.

Challenges

Group development is one of my main responsibilities as PI. This year, I’ve formulated where I would like the group to go as challenges. I use the term because that’s how I view them: as challenges for the group, and for me to lead the group to implement them.

But what I want for my group (as the abstract entity) doesn’t necessarily get everyone in the group (as a collection of individuals) excited immediately. Therefore, I’ve presented my challenges, explained why I find them important, and started discussions with my team about them.

For instance, in the light of this year’s replication study by the Open Science Collaboration, we’re discussing whether and how we can or want to implement study preregistration, data sharing, and different statistical methods into our study routine.

By discussing and making implementation a group endeavor, I hope to make it possible for all team members to identify with the lab, so that its culture will shape everyone’s work.

From lab to individual

In the end, that’s of course what it’s all about. By looking back on everyone’s individual work, events, and achievements, we frame these individual contributions in the context of the lab. From this, the lab develops a culture that we can further form together. And this larger perspective impacts back onto our individual work we will do in the coming year 2016.

How do you plan how your lab runs? Do you involve your group members, and if so, how? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Resources

Agile Results is a book on how to organize yourself, with a strong focus on planning across different time intervals, as well as for all areas of your life.

Karen Kelsky’s book — much more related to a PhD/Postdoc career; the 5-year plan idea I mention in the post is in Chapter 6.

This great 15min TED talk by Margaret Heffernan makes the point that working together is the key to the success of any team.

Photo credit: gerlos / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

 


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

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