Adventures of a Postdoc

July 6, 2007

The ultimate oxymoron: productive meetings

It seems like an episode right out of Seinfeld.

“Let’s meet on Wed around 3pm,” my PI demanded.

“For what?” I asked.

“To plan future lab meetings.”

“So, we’re having a meeting to discuss meetings?”

“Well, chances are not everyone can make it, so we’ll have to see when people are free, then meet later to discuss the future meetings.”

“What?  A meeting to discuss a meeting to discuss meetings?”

“Yes.”

I kid you not, this is an actual conversation I had with the PI of my lab.

Meetings are a waste of time.  There are no two ways about it.  It’s not just the 2 hours you have to set aside each week, it’s the hour before and hour after when you can’t do anything because you don’t want to be late, and there’s always the chance the meeting will run over.  So that’s 4 hours.  Not to mention the prep time – reviewing data, reading an article, or (in my current lab) walking around asking if anyone knows what the meeting is about, to which you usually get a shrug and a helpless look.

My previous lab had 2 scheduled meetings – The first was on Mon at 8am, when we’d meet for 15 minutes (no, that’s not a typo) and anyone who had any major issues concerning equipment, animal orders, supplies, etc, had a chance to do it with all personnel around (techs, animal caretakers, grad students, postdocs, PI, etc).  This is actually a good idea because 1) it’s short, and 2) everyone is there so you don’t have to waste time hunting them down.  It may not seem like much, but try adding up the time you spend emailing/calling people, waiting for replies, etc, and it’ll be much more than the 15 minutes we spent each week.

The second was on Fri mornings, the infamous journal club.  It was set for 1 hr, no more, no less.  Why?  That’s plenty of time to discuss an article, and if you have important things to say, you’ll say it in the time allotted because you know no one will stick around after that hour.  It forces everyone to leave out the insignificant small talk and get to the good stuff.

There were no other planned meetings, except of course for things like committee meetings.  If you needed to speak to the PI or anyone else, you did it when you passed them in the hallway or on the way into or out of work.  It may not seem like a big deal, but the hours you save each week by not having meetings just for the sake of having meetings adds up to a lot of time over the course of years and years of research.

Has anyone really walked out of a 2 hour meeting and said “Wow, that was the most productive meeting – putting my research on hold was definitely worth it!”  No.  Chances are, those 2 hours could have been dwindled down to 1 hour, or not at all, and the important issues could have been discussed impromptu in the hallway or during a 15 minute meeting.  There are people who hold meetings out of habit, and don’t stop to think about the best use of one’s time.  If you can get something accomplished in half the time (or less), you’ve actually accomplished something before the meeting even took place.

Now that’s productivity.  And we didn’t even need a meeting to do it.

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