The secret recipe for successful working group meetings?

As Meg noted recently, science is increasingly involving working groups. This is the big science aspect I discussed a while back in a lengthy footnote (and distinct from big data). Although the original (at least in ecology) synthesis center at NCEAS is no longer funded by NSF (but still very much alive funded by conservation NGOs), there are three other synthesis centers in the US (NESCent, NIMBios, SESynC). a somewhat differently functioning synthesis center iPlant, and centers in Canada, Australia, France, Germany and many other countries ( And I’m increasingly seeing work done in “working group format” even when it is not tied to a center. The NSF RCN  (Research Coordination Network grant program) is an example but quite a few PIs on regular NSF grants or NGO/conservation grants are also choosing the working group format.

I am a self confessed working group junkie. I take (undue?) pride in the fact that I’ve been to groups at all five US centers (and led working groups at two of them), been part of an RCN, been to meetings at Germany’s sDiv and although not an official synthesis center part of the UK’s Kavli meetings, and will be at Canada’s CIEE in May  and if funded at CESAB in France soon. That leaves Australia as the only big miss on my list (at least for an ecologist), and I did participate in an NGO-funded working group remotely in Australia as well.

Working groups are a personal preference. Some people like them more than others. And some people are better at being part of them than others too! There is no best way to do science. But I think they’re a great format for doing a number of things including – addressing both sides of a debate and building consensus, reviewing a field, doing meta-analysis or assembling and analyzing large datasets, and coalescing ideas and energy at key points in the trajectory of a field (including at its launch and at its coming down from bandwagon status). Certainly they have been influential – NCEAS is one of the most cited institutions in ecology.

But working groups are not a format people are trained to work in, let a lone lead. Our whole PhD is focused on primarily solo work with a few interactions. Most “regular” papers are 1-5 people. Then we throw people into a group with 15-20 people and social dynamics that are an order of magnitude more complex with no training. What follows is my distillation of the key success factors of working groups. They do not unfortunately, despite the title, come together into a magic recipe that guarantees success. And there are of course some variation depending on goals. But in my experience, if you get all of the following ingredients you’ve got a good shot at success.

During the working group proposal process

  1. Group composition #1 – personalities matter – Working groups are first and foremost social enterprises (I will be repeating this sentence several times). And with the competing challenges on everyone’s time and only having a week to pull things together, you are on the edge of failure right from the start. So it may be tempting to get the biggest name in the field, but if they’re a colossal ego who doesn’t play well with others avoid the temptation. One bad apple really can spoil the barrel. Indeed only invite people that you know either personally or indirectly through a colleague to be a good collaborator. Twice I’ve been part of groups where the goal was explicitly to bring in people from opposing camps – but even here considerable effort was expended to only bring people in who could be part of a civil give-and-take dialogue and some of the extremists were intentionally left out..
  2. Group composition #2 – career stages – In my experience the ideal working groups has  a pyramid shape with the largest group being postdocs, the next largest group being early tenure track, and a much smaller sample of senior ecologists. I’ve never actually seen a truly pyramidal group, maybe a more realistic goal is rectangular – with equal representation of postdocs, early career, and senior. But definitely think about this.
  3. Meet for 5 days per session – There is a wide variety of opinion on this. And I’ve been part of 2 day meetings that are successful. But if you’re going to fly in people form around the world who are giving up 2-3 days to travel and jet lag, why would you meet for less than 4-5 days? Also in my experience it really does take that long to allow some of the and social processes and buy-in to a common goal to take place. It may be efficient to have small subset groups that meet shorter periods (or extensions to the 5 days).  And if everybody already knows each other so the social processes and goals are well worked out, sometimes fewer days works. But in most cases 5 days is an optimal number in my experience. And if people can’t commit the 5 days, they’re not going to be a big contributor anyway. The working group process is a slow one. There are many other advantages, but speed is not one.
  4. Who will do the work between meetings? – This is one of the motivations for #2 – everybody will leave a group meeting with good intentions. But who will actually spend more than 5 hours moving the project forward (i.e. doing data, simulations, analysis, writings)? If the PIs of the working group aren’t going to do this (and if they aren’t prepared to do this they probably shouldn’t be the PIs) and there aren’t any postdocs looking for good projects then odds are nobody will do this. There are some exceptions I’ve seen, where say the goal was a meta-analysis and during the meeting everybody was assigned say 10 papers to code before the next meeting. This very discrete chunk can be expected between meetings. And I’ve seen plenty of meetings where somebody uplanned stepped up to carry a load (but they were almost always postdocs or occasionally early career).

Beginning of meeting

  1. Do a Powerpoint death march on the first day – This is my tongue-in-cheek name for the idea of lettting everybody at the group stand up and give a presentation about their work related to the topic. This is oft-debated with many arguing it is a waste of time. But in my experience if you don’t give people a clear window to get their opinion out, they will spend the whole rest of the meeting slipping it in edgewise. I have seen this happen more than once and it can be really annoying when the whole group is converging and somebody is knocking on about their preconceived idea of how to do it – better to get it out of the way on the first day. It is in the long run more efficient to spend a day doing this. That said, the PIs can make this efficient or painful. Give people very clear instructions on what you wan them to present on. And give them absolute time limits (typically 10 or 15 minutes). Then ENFORCE the time limits rigidly. Conversation about a presentation is fine to run over a little since conversation is the point of a working group. But DO NOT let anybody deliver a monologue one minute over their planned time. This only needs to be done the first time a group meets.
  2. Do a regrouping and group agenda setting after the Powerpoint death march – After everybody has been heard from spending some time setting the agenda for the rest of the time. Many times the PIs will have a pretty clear idea. Other times, the goal really is to brainstorm the agenda together. But either way put it on a white board and talk it out a bit as a group and be open to changes. This will get you buy-in and understanding of the agenda. It will also get you the sum-is-greater-than-the-parts synergy that you are hoping for from a working group.
  3. PIs need to take their role as cruise director seriously – Working groups are first and foremost social enterprises (I promised you that idea would come back). I’ve never seen a successful working group that didn’t spend a lot of time going out to dinners. The PIs need to take the lead to make sure that these are organized by early afternoon so everybody knows and they need to set the example that this is an expected activity. There is an age old debate amongst group members who want to go to dinner right after work stops and those who want a couple of hours to go exercise first. Some compromise is needed. Some of the best working groups I’ve been part of have actually knocked off early one afternoon and gone for a hike or field trip. It might seem a waste of time, but trust me it pays off
  4. Lead a discussion about authorship expectations early – There is no right or wrong answer about who should be a co-author on papers from the group. But setting expectations in a group discussion up front is essential. Most groups I’ve been part of have decided that everybody present should be part of the core synthesis or review paper(s). You want to create an attitude where everybody is chipping in and not holding back their best ideas. Authorship is the best way to do this. Authorship rules on more subisidiary papers varies, but it should be collectively agreed up front.

Middle part of the meeting (e.g. days 2-4)

  1. Do the work – this is of course the end goal. But its the hardest to give generic advice about because the nature of the work varies. It may be finding and coding papers for a meta-analysis or assembling data sets. It might be a fairly large group discussion about consensus state of the field. It might be simulations. It might be a mixture of these things. But it probably occupies the bulk of the meeting – especially the middle days. And it probably involves breaking out into subgroups with different tasks or topics to cover.
  2. Regroup once or twice a day – even if much of the work will happen in breakout groups (and it almost certainly will) – bring the whole group back for 30 minutes before lunch and 30 minutes before dinner and have each group report in. This keeps everybody rowing in the same direction. It is also where much of the magic of working groups happens as recurring themes and areas of disagreement emerge.
  3. Follow a diamond-trajectory – This is true really of any brainstorming or group process. The goal in the beginning is to broaden out – open up minds, create crazy ideas, capture every thought. Then when things have gotten impossibly wide, it is time to pivot and turn energies into focusing and narrowing down. A key to a good working group is for the PIs to have the nerve to let things broaden out for a while (often several days)  and then have the leadership to firmly reign it back into a focus.
  4. Know when to force a turning of the corner to writing – closely related to #11. In no case should you start writing immediately. And one or two people will probably do the bulk of the writing probably after you go home. But you should definitely start writing (or at least detailed outlining) before you scatter. You might even assign sections and end up writing a whole draft while you’re at the working group. But this is another key decision point for the leaders – when to stop the talking/analyzing and start the writing. It should start (again at a minimum to outline stage) before you leave.
  5. Pace yourself – it is tempting to treat the working group time as so precious that you should work 12 hour days. But this is a big mistake. Aside from the great importance of social bonding (#7), you are doing a creative activity that requires fresh bright minds. Many of your members will have flown 12-24 hours to get there and be jet lagged. And the rest will be exhuasted by an intense pace long before the week is over. I’ve personally found that keeping the working group to 9-5 with at least an hour for lunch (plus joint dinners that are social) keeps things productive through day 5 while anything more leads to severe drooping by the end.
  6. Manage the email and phone calls – everybody will want/need to keep up on email and may make an occasional phone call to their lab managers, other collaborations, etc. In my experience the best way is to tackle this head on by building in time for it and then putting out a pretty clear expectation to be fully focused on the meeting the rest of time. I usually allow 60 minutes for lunch (this is a social enterprise …) and then a good 30-45 minutes immediately after lunch for phone calls and catching up on email. This way people can run a little long on lunch or end a little early and have more time for email as they wish. And you can expect (and demand) full attention the rest of the time.

End of the meeting (e.g. Day 5)

  1. When the meeting really ends – If you tell people the meeting ends at noon, they will book flights out at 9. If you tell people the meeting ends at 5, they will book flights out at 12 or 1. So tell them it ends at 5 and secretly (don’t let on your real plan) know that you really will end at 1:00PM. But don’t forget that long distance travellers will usually not fly out until the next day. You can still get some work done, and have one last dinner. You just won’t have everybody. As a PI you should definitely plan to stay until the day after the meeting is officially over and lead this tail end.
  2. Leave with clear assignments  – well before people start peeling out – i.e the morning of the last day – put a list on the projector or white board of tasks, deadlines and 1-2 names attached (5 names attached is the same as no names attached). Discuss this with the whole group.
  3. Accountability – Find a way to keep work flowing between meetings. Emails with reminders of tasks is a good way to do this. Circulating draft versions of papers or working versions of datasets is a good way too. In my experience scheduling a monthly phone call is also a good idea. Having somebody setup to be a “nagger” (either a PI or a postdoc) who keeps track of timelines is important too.

So – being a good leader of a working group just requires staying on top of 17 different things! If it sounds like leading a working group is exhausting – it is! Being a participant at a working group is exhausting, but being a leader and riding herd on the whole process is a whole other level of exhausting.

Obviously my 17 points are not a magic formula. Its just the wisdom I’ve pieced together over a couple of dozen working group meetings. And a couple like #11 and #12 require serious judgement on the PIs part – all I can do is highlight the question. And some will disagree with my list – I know from discussions I’ve had #3 and #5 are definitely not universally agreed upon.

What are your experiences? What are the ingredients in your secret recipe to a successful working group? What works and doesn’t work?

This entry was posted in Advice by Brian McGill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

38 thoughts on “The secret recipe for successful working group meetings?

  1. Thanks Brian! I’ll keep some of the points in mind, although I’m not a fan of the presentation death-march. It works only if the presentations are really focused on the workshop topic an dnot a history of the work of the presenters….see you again @sDiv

    • Yes the powerpoint death march is controversial. And up front it doesnt’ seem worth it. But my own opinion is that the workshops I’ve been in that skipped it ended up paying for it later. The key is to have strong leadership that keeps it on schedule and on topic. But I know many veteran working group leaders (such as yourself!) disagree with me.

    • sMarten: Exactly! It seems like most people just want to give one of their canned talks on their research program instead of saying something about the topic at hand. If you really must do the death march, then I say ask for a short summary of talks beforehand and insist that they be relevant.

      • Ah but if you don’t let them say it up front, there are usually 2 or 3 people who will spend the whole rest of the working group saying it. It cleans the air and lets everbody open their mind to know they’ve gotten their big point out already.

        I fullly agree it is the PIs job to make this work. Hands off on this will be a disaster

      • Is it so terrible if their talk is about their own research? Presumably if they’re invited their own research is highly germane to the working group. Just knowing where everybody else in the room is coming from is helpful too in the social dynamic sense. And the goal initially is the opening up phase of the diamond trajectory I mentioned. Lots of ideas, often unexpected are what you need. If you have a diverse (discipline & geography wise) working group odds are high not everybody knows everybody’s work.

        I don’t expect I’ll convert people on this (anymore than I will convince everybody to go to dinner right at 5:00 after the working group ends every night). And that’s fine. But its not a topic I’m on the fence about – I feel pretty definitively it makes for a better working group dynamic over the long run based on empirical observation of with and without treatments. I still of course follow the guidelines of the leader of whatever working group I am at.

  2. This all looks like it would make a great working group, but I’d add a little plug for diversity, and to consider that diversity in planning activities – “only invite people that you know either personally or indirectly through a colleague to be a good collaborator” might lead to a pretty homogeneous group. It doesn’t take too much effort to diversify, but it usually does take some conscious effort.

    • I agree diversity is very important. Lots of work in the business literature that shows diversity improves group creativity. It is ultimately the main reason why you have a working group. I know what your saying how friend of friends can defeat diversity, but I think it depends on how you do it If you use the group to suggest and the leaders filter with diversity in mind it can work very well (much better than just the leaders thinking of names)(Morgan Ernest has a good post on this). And the academic world is pretty small. If there is somebody you think would be good its not very hard to email a colleague who you think would know that person to get a personality reference. In practice when I ask for suggestions I get lots of people I would never have thought of.

    • I agree with this – there is a real risk that working groups lead to an “old boys club” type of mentality. To get invited you need to know the “right” people. My partner has been to a couple and has had discussions with people asking “how do you get invited” where all he’s been able to say is be friends with so and so…

      This is especially a concern as working groups do tend to put out reasonable numbers of synthesis/meta-analysis type papers that tend to be highly cited so give your cv a real boost.

      • I agree that one should worry about this. And the proposal review panels look at this pretty seriously. There are so many working groups out there that I am sure some probably are based on friend of friends. But its not my experience. The last working group I was at was all the authors on 4 papers that contradicted each other were invited so it was purely “meritocratic” but even that is rare in my experience. Honestly most working groups I’ve been part of work pretty hard at getting new people together. Its one of the points of a working group. And it is a specific review criteria of RCN and an at least implicit criteria on most working group review panels.

      • I just read my original quote. I think you are right I phrased it badly. It does sound like friend of friend which is quickly a formula for “old boys club”. What I should have said is you need some way of checking out peoples personalities.

        As my previous comment just pointed out, it has not been my experience that this is actually a problem. But I’d be curious to hear others’ experience.

    • I totally recommend this paper to anybody leading (or even attending) a working group. THis is a fairly quantitative and outcome oriented analysis. Some of the other work by Parker, including especially the 2008 paper by Hackett, Parker and others (cited in the paper you recommend) gives a much more qualitative, process-oriented analysis as well. Well worth reading. Might take scientists out of their comfort zone but in a good way (working groups are first and foremost a social enterprise … even managed to get it in on the comments!). Scientists should study the science about how we do science!

  3. This is great, thanks Brian.

    I might protest this a bit though: “And if people can’t commit the 5 days, they’re not going to be a big contributor anyway.”

    If someone can’t commit for 5 days for non-work reasons, such as having young children (and especially moms who are nursing), that doesn’t mean they won’t be a big contributor. If their work schedule makes them too busy to come, then I agree. But there are many reasons for not being able to do a 5 day (plus travel) trip that don’t correlate with ability to contribute outside the workshop.

    • Deatr Margaret, that is the reason that iDiv and its synthesis centre sDiv ( offer child care service for workshop participants 🙂 …I also think this is an important issue.

      • This is an important issue.

        I agree I over generalized in saying the only reason someone wouldn’t come is lack of commitment (should have said the most common – there are a lot of bigshots who think they have so much value to add that flying in for two days is a gift, and it doesn’t work that way in my experience). But I’m not sure what alternative you’re suggesting?

        Many working groups I’ve been part of have been very family friendly with moms ducking in and out as needed (I can think of at least 3 different working groups/moms of nursing children who did this that I’ve been part of) and kids & spouses attending dinner and etc. This does of course have a cost of flying a spouse along.

        In general, I will say that the working group format is very hard on any involved parent. It can involve a commit of as much as 1 week away every 6 months. That’s a lot of travel for any parent. Its the reason I do fewer working groups than I did before my kids were born.

  4. It is of great interest for me to see this concept become integrated in ecology, and to see its evolution. The first 18 years of my career were in ecology. Then, I made the very (& I mean very) difficult transition to 12 years in the field of medical-based research. In 2009, I returned to ecology. So I have somewhat of a unique perspective.

    Medicine evolved this model long before ecology, and it is now just second-nature for them. I was never part of a project that did not continually apply the work group model. And, it is highly successful… even when egos collide. I am moved to critique one of your points. It concerns the “pyramid model” approach, which you seem to endorse. My experience in medicine suggests this model is antiquated and needs to be discarded- and here’s why:

    Ideas- very often the best ideas- & insights- do not come from the most learned and most promoted among the ranks. Rather- they very often come from the people in the trenches. In medicine, this would be your research technicians (BS or MS degrees) slogging it out, day in & day out, at the bench. In ecology, these would be your research technicians (BS & MS degrees) slogging out it the, day in & day out, either at the bench or in the heat of the day afield.

    The first project I took on as a PI in 2010 after returning to ecology involved a very large working group… well over 100 people. PhD, MS, BS & undergraduate; university, government & NGO. So, when I assembled a core group of about 20 people for an intensive work group- I inverted the pyramid, so to speak. That is, I spent far more time engaging the people in the trenches than the people residing in the ivory towers… and the results & outcomes were truly magnificent.

    So my one and only suggestion to your outlay here is that you give strong consideration to replacing that pyramid model. It worked time & again in my career in medicine and, it seems to have done so upon my return to ecology.

      • No- I understand the construct in terms of the # of warm bodies. Invariably I think most projects will have that design. I guess I did not state it clearly. In hierarchies there is a very strong tendency to develop ideas top-down. That is, the folks in the trenches are not drawn upon for a whole lot of intellectual input- but are just that- cannon fodder as it were. My suggestion is that they actually be given more consideration when it comes to developing & modifying intellectual approaches compared to the folks on top.

        If I misread your intent I apologize.

      • Not sure why you’ve phrased this as disagreeing with me? We’re on the same page. But I can well imagine how this goes down in a medical context which is much more hierarchical even than academics.

  5. I’m interested in why graduate students aren’t part of your working group pyramid? In my experience, graduate students can play a similar role as postdocs by stepping up to invest the time it takes to get projects completed. It seems that including grad students is also a good way to solve the problem that you mentioned: “working groups are not a format people are trained to work in”. As a graduate student, working groups have been one of the best resource for opportunities outside of my home institution: developing interpersonal skills, leadership, networking, etc.

    I completely agree with #11 (follow a diamond trajectory). A group that does working groups well (GLEON) calls the widest point of the diamond the “groan zone” (I think the diamond model and groan zone reference come this facilitation guide: The best working groups I’ve participated in had a great facilitator, who can be different from the leader of the group. This is especially important to get to and out of the groan zone. Someone who is good at hearing all voices, summarizing ideas/progress, making people expand on their ideas, etc. can really improve group cohesion and performance.

    • I’m all in favor of graduate students at working groups! Woring groups I’ve gone to I’ve often paid to bring along my graduate students.Although some say it is a waste of time for graduate students who should focus on individual research I disagree. I actually thought about mentioning them, but I didn’t mention them only because they’re not that common at working groups, and certainly they’re not more common than postdocs which would have complicated my pyramid metaphor. Some centers actually discourage inviting graduate students.

      I was unaware of your reference (apparently I independently invented the diamond model). I like the phrase groan zone and the key is not only that you have to be able to get out, but as you say nicely, you have to be willing to “get to” the groan zone. It takes some nerve as a group leader – it feels disturbingly close to the group spinning out of control!

      • Oh, I so love this discussion! Great topic, Brian! Following up on your comments- yes, medicine can be very hierarchical in some ways. But more often than not- the PIs on grants are MDs- whose time is consumed at clinic and in the OR. So, they heavily rely on the trench people. Concerning the 2010 project I referenced- here I had a good collection of tenured people from academia & the federal government. They were of course very helpful. But where I found my real assets were among the land manager crowd. These people had BS degrees at best, but they were the ones on the range day in and day out. When I ran my ideas by them, the feedback was simply amazing. Practicality trumped the theoretical, and in the end, gave way to truly amazing theoretical outcomes. In fact, the two primary hypotheses I pursued on that project came from two people who were managers… with BS degrees. I dedicated a full 5 years to the pursuit of those hypotheses, and it literally transformed my career into something I never, ever imagined possible!

      • Ah – I get where you’re coming from more now – you’re contrasting academic vs real world? I actually think working groups that span that divide are a great formula (I personally think the academics have something to add to the conversation too). And SESYNC would agree – that is their whole raison d’etre.

      • I agree with Samantha’s point (and I think David’s point above hers is similar) about graduate students/those in the trenches. In fact in Australia, graduate students play a big role in both big and small working groups. From experience, involvement in working groups is a really important part of graduate student career development (they have the chance to walk away from their PhD with a stronger network/potential collaborators). Indeed, younger contributors can often have the brightest/freshest ideas, without including them we are potentially missing/losing a lot from not involving them in these processes. Perhaps this is an area that needs improvement in existing working group models in the US? I think it is.

        I will also highlight that the facilitators guide that Samantha mentioned above is a great resource. From experience it is certainly worth having it on your desk/at the ready if you are planning a workshop or interested in improving/strengthening your overall approach and outcomes from workshops and working groups.

        Thanks for the post and interesting discussion!

  6. On the one working group that I led, I actually had to beat people with a stick to get them to stop working and come to meals. I felt like I’d chosen such a great group of people, everyone totally got stuck in for the whole week without me having to push them at all. But unfortunately, I naively assumed that the momentum would maintain itself once we all went home.

  7. I think what wasn’t stressed enough but just in between the lines here and there is the social component. It’s the timing of those events (at the beginning), where esp. those who don’t know each other and the younger ones (among the leading senior figures in the fields which is one of the cool aspects) can get to know everyone and learn that they can/should communicate as if they would been friends or at least good colleagues. Joint Dinners/breakfasts help but other short field trips or sightseeing tours (like we do) are helpful here too. Not too much (they should work on the paradigm shifts – AH, another topic ;O) but enough to feel in the group welcomed and to be able always raise also critical points without hesitations.

  8. As a former participant in a working group led by Brian, I can say that having a leader who is in some sense a benevolent dictator is key. I guess this gets to #11, but I thought Brian did a really good job of allowing discussion to meander only so far, or letting personal disagreements go on for so long, before reigning things in and saying “we are now moving on”. Without this, you will not get nearly as much done as you had hoped, and Brian had really great judgement on how wide the diamond should get.

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