• October 31, 2014

Regrouping the Group Meeting

They’re often a colossal waste of time. So how do we make them useful?

Regrouping the Group Meeting 1

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

How often do you hear a colleague say, "I’m so excited to attend today’s group meeting," or a student remark, "How is it possible that my group meetings are so stimulating and engaging?"

What’s that? You’ve never heard anyone say those things? Me neither. I dread meetings for the same reason that everyone does: They’re usually a waste of time.

Most often, a meeting consists of a group of people who gather to discuss a particular
topic, to make or move toward a decision, or to (dare I use the b-word?) brainstorm. These well-intentioned discussions too frequently involve only a few of the many present. The decision would usually be more efficiently made online. And as for brainstorming, the idea seems to work better in theory than in practice.

All across the country on a weekly basis we suffer in meetings. We waste time, we snooze. More and more, we don’t even pretend we’re engaged. People go to meetings with their phones purposefully juiced up, ready to send texts, check email, or play Fruit Ninja.

And that colossal waste of time occurs on a wide scale. Take research groups: According to the National Science Foundation, in the United States for the disciplines of science, engineering, and health combined, there were 62,947 postdoctoral researchers and 626,820 graduate students in 2011. At a rate of one two-hour group meeting a week, that amounts to roughly 69 million hours of their time spent each year in a typical research meeting—and that doesn’t count undergraduates, faculty members, or staff members. Out of those 69 million hours, we probably squeeze, at most, a million hours of true productivity.

It was that huge loss of potential that led me to seek a solution to my own research group’s weekly meetings. Until recently our sessions followed a common format, in which two group members presented their research to the rest of the group, followed by an open-ended discussion. Variations on that theme existed, of course—like having just one presenter, or more than two, or even a rapid-fire approach, in which everyone talks, but for only a few minutes each.

The conventional format is not without value; there were moments of helpfulness. Yet, for most of my group members, the traditional meeting was a time to zone out, flip open their laptops, or tap away on their phones after the first few minutes.

So I decided to intervene. But 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. I wanted our meetings crisis to be resolved from within, collectively, with a dash of Obama 2008—in other words, "We are the meeting we have been waiting for."

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?

At first only a few people raised their hands to offer suggestions. Then more. And more. And then the room filled with a robust discussion. Every single person in the room participated. Everyone. It was the liveliest and most collaborative meeting we’d ever had. We discussed, we argued, we complained, we made fun of ourselves. We got it all out and then some. We reclaimed the importance of our time together as a group. And then we voted on the completely new structure that we had come up with.

I’ll tell you the particulars of that structure, but not before offering a warning: Our approach to meetings might not be the right one for every group. The format should depend on the people and the type of research involved. The key is that, whatever the format, it has to have come from the members themselves.

During our intervention, an idea that became extremely important was that of the meeting as an "opportunity." That word kept being repeated. We talked about how badly we had been squandering the opportunity, how valuable it could be, and how much we all wanted to maintain it. (Yes, not having group meetings at all was on the table, but nobody wanted that. Really.) In fact, what came out of our group catharsis was a realization that this opportunity was the only one in which all of us—with different ways of thinking, different backgrounds, and different interests working on different problems—could come together to talk about research.

That simple fact was something that we all knew and yet had never been explicitly emphasized. It was too easily forgotten. No more. Now the two lead presenters at each meeting must think carefully in developing their separate themes and slides. What does the presenter need from this opportunity? The presentation is not about impressing people. It’s a chance to solicit the information that will be of most help to the presenter and his or her research.

It’s not just the presenter’s role that has shifted. The other group members bring a greater responsibility to the table as well. They, too, must understand that some questions lead to valuable insights and discussions, while other questions are too narrow and lead quickly to the dreaded one-on-one, supertechnical digressions that bore the pants off of everyone else.

That’s why I bring a toy gavel to each meeting, and a sheriff’s hat and badge for good measure. We realized that our meetings needed to be more firmly managed. Now we set time limits and enforce them. Questions are sometimes cut off if they take us too far afield. People are called on randomly to ask questions or make comments. Everyone is engaged every minute of the meeting. The presenter gets 10 minutes, and the discussion time is 30 minutes. There are no cellphones or laptops open anymore, although we have built into our new format a five-minute pause between the usual two presenters, specifically to satisfy people’s e-addictions. That way everyone needs to go only one hour without a text or tweet, as opposed to two.

The discussion period is most important, since it’s where the big payoffs typically occur. So it has to be set up properly. Presenters must provide any reading material a day ahead of time. At least one of the 10 minutes spent presenting must involve a "group ask"—some questions to which this collection of people, together, can add value.

When someone’s question or answer gets gaveled, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad question or a useless discussion. In fact, it could be a fine question for a one-on-one conversation. However, at a group meeting, the questions have to at least try to take advantage of the group opportunity. We’ve built in 30 minutes at the end of the meeting for the technical one-on-one discussions to take place for those who are interested. And the people who stay for those discussions are rewarded with a problem-solving mashup.

Initially I was the sheriff. But after the first few weeks with our new format, I began handing the badge over to students and postdocs. And now sometimes I get gaveled. But what a difference our new format makes. We own our meetings now, we run them, and we look forward to them (mostly). The success of our new approach has exceeded my hopes. Of course, it’s been only six months, so to some extent the jury is still out. But what I see happening is exciting.

People in the group are receiving better and broader advice about how to tackle specific research challenges they face. Their work is more informed from that feedback, and their focus during the meeting is greater, as they realize that the group is paying more attention and is engaged in their research. Discussions are more collaborative. We build on one another’s contributions more frequently, and often that leads to new ideas, ones that arise from the cross-section of experience and points of view in the room.

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.

That’s true, but the problem is that it shouldn’t be the only part. Especially in a meeting, building upon one another’s ideas without the criticism leads to wonderful, stimulating, highly unpredictable discussions. In those discussions, right ideas can go wrong and wrong ideas can go right. That’s part of the creative process.

If the atmosphere in the room is such that everyone is afraid of being criticized for some potentially stupid idea then the iteration process never happens. This has to be carefully managed during the discussion period, and the responsibility lies with the sheriff. In our new group meetings, I can tangibly feel the creative generation of ideas, and I believe it is empowering for the students.

These days I receive emails from group members telling me how much they look forward to our meetings. And the truth is: I do, too.

Jeffrey C. Grossman is an associate professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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