A report about an ongoing attempt to change the flow of coming up with research ideas.
In this post, I’ll share about how we’re experimenting with being creative in the lab.
Typical ways to develop new work programs
In the past, I’ve experienced mainly two ways of how new research programs were developed in science labs.
A more or less senior person, often the group head, more or less secretly comes up with more or less great new ideas, writes them up in a grant, gets the money, and then looks for someone to do the work. Thus,
- ideas come from a single person
- discussion about these ideas was minimal, or restricted to a few conversations, e.g. at a conference or with a mentor
- criticism and improvement of the research ideas and their (e.g. experimental) implementation are sought at the implementation stage, that is, when a newly hired person starts working on moving the ideas from paper to the lab.
Ongoing research throws up some interesting, or at least unexplainable, discoveries. New work follows up to clear up the unknowns. Thus,
- new work is directly related to current work; it is not visionary (what a big word…), but incremental.
- The new work continues an existing line of thinking, and doesn’t connect to new fields. It specializes, but doesn’t broaden perspective.
A different way to develop research programs
In one of the podcasts I listen to (unfortunately, I can’t recall which one it was), I heard about a company that has all employees come together for a whole day once a month. There is a single rule: you can’t talk about your regular, day-to-day work.
Instead, the employees of that company talk about anything that is on — or comes to — their mind that normally gets pushed back due to the pressures of everyday workload and deadlines. The objectives of these meetings are to increase communication in the company, identify trends, collect ideas etc.
A slightly more organized approach
I was intrigued about the approach to explicitly cancel work for a day and to focus on a higher level of things, and decided to give it a try.
We organized a 3-day group retreat. Half of it was dedicated to discussion about “higher level” science ideas, with the explicit aim to get away from what we’re currently doing.
Here’s how we went about:
- Everyone read 1-3 recent review papers that sounded interesting in preparation of the retreat. They were unrelated to current projects.
- At the retreat, everyone gave a 15-20 min overview over the main points s/he learned from the paper(s), and what s/he found most interesting and promising.
- Then, we teamed up in couples to discuss for an hour. This discussion had 3 aims:
- Try and find connections between the two topics of the two discussants.
- Try and find connections to our group’s current work: can we expand towards these fields; can we find new experimental paradigms from those fields; do these fields challenge our work and our assumptions in some way?
- Try and come up with experiment ideas, whether related to current work or not.
- Everyone teamed up with everyone else, so we had several discussion rounds.
- Each time, we wrote thoughts, ideas, difficulties etc. on flip charts.
- At the end of the day, we wrapped up, with each small team recapping their discussion in 5 minutes. We created a mindmap of the day’s outcome.
The results were amazing.
We opened up entirely new roads of possible research. Although I took part in the discussions just like everyone else, the coolest ideas came from the teams in which I wasn’t a part. We have a mindmap of directions we can go, and we can take it out to form new experiments, and to add on still new ideas. And last not least, everyone felt that we had been able to discuss in a way that has just not been possible in our everyday lab life, even with communicative group meetings and journal clubs.
So, we’re now setting up monthly discussion days. I’m not sure yet whether and how we’ll structure those, but the aim is to step out of our daily routines, to continue building the mindmap, to expand our group’s horizon, and to pool together everyone’s ideas.
So, group creativity is an alternative to Models 1 and 2. Its characteristics are:
- Ideas come from many people, each of them smart(er than the group head).
- An idea’s potential, caveats, confounds, etc. are discussed well before implementation, and many eyes see much more than 2 or 4.
- New research has a bigger chance of being visionary (yes! yes! again the big word!), and less incremental.
- As a “side” effect, by the way, everyone in the team gains a broader horizon, new knowledge about less directly related scientific topics, and there is more communication between different projects in the lab.
In a company, it might not be very important who came up with an idea, as long as the money comes rolling in at some point. In science, this is a bit different. Ideas are the core of a scientific career.
If ideas are thrown around freely in a big group like I suggest in this post, it is important to talk about how to make sure that credit is given to who deserves it. I think this is different than when you discuss ideas one-on-one with a team member, because it will be much harder to keep track of who said what.
We’re talking, for instance, about first and last author positions on papers. But more than that, imagine you’re a Postdoc at the stage of writing your first grant, and you find that the ideas that developed out of your input to group days — which you assumed would end up in your grant — turn out to be part of your supervisor’s new grant initiative.
It will not always be easy to reconstruct where an idea came from. And, let’s be realistic, seniors can be hard nuts about authorship. In your group, you’re the senior, and it’s your responsibility to be fair, in return for everyone letting out their creativity.
So, probably some form of write-up at the end of the day, summing up the major ideas and contributors, might be useful (though it feels like a creativity killer at the same time).
In my group, we’re just starting the discussion about these issues. I’ll post updates as we go along.