Most meetings in academic research groups are awful. I have attended meetings that lasted hours and hours, and didn’t produce any useful output. I know researchers who try to avoid meetings as much as they can, and prefer to work by themselves, because of too many bad experiences. In the end, the problem is that scientists are not very good communicators, and most PIs are not trained for being group leaders, so meetings end up being very boring and time wasting, more harmful than useful.
Fortunately this year, thanks to a meetup group here in Barcelona, I discovered that there are many ways to improve meetings and make them more interesting. The most interesting is the concept of “Gamestorming”, which is based on transforming group meetings into “games”. If instead of inviting people to attend a meeting you ask them to participate to a short game, people are more likely to participate actively and make good contributions.
Most gamestorming techniques involve blackboards and post-its, and ask people to use them to explain their own opinion. A simple example of a gamestorming meeting would be a planning meeting where the group leader splits a blackboard into three sections, one for listing different “Project Proposals”, and the other two for “Pros” and “Cons” of each project proposal, and asks the participant to fill the blackboard using post-its. If you want to have a good overview of techniques for brainstorming in general, I can recommend you the book “Gamestorming“, by Gray, Brown, Macanufo, from O’Reilly, which I am reading these days.
In any case, I have been thinking about which planning “games” can be adopted in bioinformatics, or by researchers in general. Here is a list of a what I introduced or planned to introduce to my group:
The “post-publication feedback” game
After a paper is published, researchers usually proceed to the next project, and do not speak too much about what has been done. This is unfortunate, because much can be learned by discussing what has gone well or wrong in the paper, and what can be used to make the next publications better. The “post-publication feedback” game is a way of getting feedback from the authors of a paper, without taking them too much time and without boring them.
Participants: This game should be done after one or two months after a paper is published. All the authors of the paper should participate, although other members of the lab can come as well.
Game: In the game, the group leader or the facilitator splits a blackboard into a few sections. You should choose only three or for section titles from the following list (explanation of section titles is given within parenthesis):
- Message of the paper (Can you resume the most important message of this paper, in a sentence? Sometimes, authors of the same paper may disagree on this, and it is interesting to know if it is the case)
- What would you change? (What would you change if you had to start this work from the beginning?)
- What analysis will you keep? (Which analysis/method/type of visualization did you find so useful that you will use it in other projects?)
- What went well?
- What went wrong?
- What’s next? (What is the next thing to do to continue this work?)
After the blackboard has been splitted into section, the facilitator should give three post-its to each person. After giving 5 minutes to everybody to write, each person is asked in turn to post a post-it to the blackboard, in any section. Each person will be given 2 or 3 minutes to explain what he wrote, and then the turn will pass to another person.
After finishing the game, it would be a good habit to copy all the contents of the blackboard and put them into an archive.
Notes: This game must be very quick, and should not last more than half an hour. There are three reasons to keep this short. First, we want to avoid to create discussions between members of the group (your results are all wrong! I could not finish my part because you didn’t give me the materials! etc..). If someone talks for more than 5 minutes, the group leader or the faciliator should interrupt him and proceed to the next person. Second, if people are aware that there it will be no discussion on what they will say, and that they won’t be forced to explain much of what they wrote, they are more likely to give negative comments, which is what we want to get. The third advantage of making this game quick is that people won’t get bored after the meeting, so it will be easier to propose them to do the same after future publications. In theory, members of a group should get the habit of making one such meeting after each publication, and not be depressed by it.
The “please leave me a feedback post-it” poster game
This is a technique that I applied to a poster presented at the ECCB conference this year.
Basically, when you design the poster, leave a section where people can give feedback on the poster. The best thing is to ask three different questions, because this makes it easier for people to reply.
To do this game, it is very important to be gentle and educated. Explain your poster to the people who are interested, as you would do normally; but once you have finished, ask them to leave a comment on the poster, using a post-it.
When I tried this at the ECCB, it had a huge success.. Many people came and left me comments on the poster. Unfortunately, the contents of the poster are still unpublished, and I don’t feel confident publishing it here; but I will write a summary post on this blog once I will be confident enough.
The “What would Sabeti think of this manuscript” game
This is a game that I applied to improve a manuscript and a poster. Pardis Sabeti is the name of a renown iranian population geneticist, and one result I got from the application of this game is an idea of what she would think of a poster I prepared.
Do you know how Albert Einstein had the idea of relativity? He was trying to imagine what would it be like to be a ray of light. He asked himself: if I was a ray of light, how would I see the world around me? Sometimes, good ideas come when you try to imagine the point of view of other people or things.
Participants: you can do this game by yourself, or invite other group members, if they have time. If you can ask somebody else to fill the names and the situations for you, it will be better.
Game: Take a piece of paper, split it into many little pieces, and write one of the following names on each piece:
- Pardis Sabeti
- Stephen Wright
- your boss
- the names of some of your collaborators
- your grandmother
You can substitute Sabeti and the other names with scientists known in your main field of work
Take another paper, split it in many little pieces again, and write some random situations on each:
- at a conference
- before getting to sleep
- after a bicycle ride
- reading papers early in the morning
- at the end of the day, after a very long meeting
- while eating chocolate
Once you have finished, mix the two sets of pieces, and extract combinations of person/situations. For each combination, try to fill a table containing the following columns:
- What is the Principal Message?
- Which section would he/she skip?
- What would he change if he had to do the poster?
- What would he/she do after reading the poster?
Here is an example of what I filled for a poster of mine:
This game is a simple exercise that will help you imagine how people will react to your work. It will help you fix minor details, and improve the presentation of your work. The fact of combining a person with a situation may seem silly, but it makes it easier to empathize with other peoples’ thoughts. In fact, it is easier to imagine other peoples’ mind if you add some funny element to it.
I think I will open a discussion on Biostar to see if somebody else has experience with gamestorming. I know that people at Uniprot use it for getting feedback on their interface, but let’s see if somebody else has something to add.
EDIT: this is the link to the Biostar Discussion on Gamestorming: http://www.biostars.org/post/show/53788/gamestorming-for-bioinformatics . You will find more techniques there.