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 (http://synthesis-consortium.org/). 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
- 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..
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?