An Innovative approach to writing a lab mission statement

Note from Elena Bennett (2011): What does your lab do and why? In our Leopold Leadership training, we learned about developing an “elevator speech” about our own research. But what about the work of our teams? A couple years ago, Jessica Hellmann (2011) worked with her team to write mission and vision statements for her lab group. Reading her blog post about the experience, I realized that this was not only a great way to come up with a concise description of the broad range of work done in our lab, but also a way to encourage the students to develop their own understanding of why it is important work to do. We tried developing our own mission statement last year, and it was an amazing experience, helping us articulate our vision and also making us come together as a group even more than before. Here, Chris Buddle, Associate Professor at McGill University, explains how they went about it in their group, and reflects on what he learned.

Last week, during our laboratory meeting, we worked to develop a laboratory mission statement. My real inspiration for this came from my friend and colleague Elena Bennett – she also got me connected to Jessica Hellmann’s excellent post on the topic.  A mission statement is really just a way to clearly define who we are, what we do, and why we do the sorts of things that we do. From a research laboratory’s point of view, the goal of the exercise is (in part) to help all members of the laboratory feel part of something bigger. Something that has broad relevance to a community that extends far beyond the walls of our institution, and far beyond the boundaries of our own specific research projects.

Here’s what we did to come up with our (draft) statement:

1) We each wrote down a few words or a short sentence on an index card. We tried to write things that we felt described what the laboratory does in a broader sense (i.e., beyond our own specific interests). Here’s an example:


2) We mixed up these cards and each person took someone else’s card. We then went around the table and read what was on the cards. This allowed us a terrific jumping off point for the discussion and generated the necessary words and ideas.

3) The “scribe” (in this case, it was me) wrote down each descriptive word (in our case, things like “arthropods,” “human disturbance,” and “biodiversity” came up a lot), and as a group, we wrote down some verbs to help us think about the “action” that we take with the things we do. Here, verbs like “explore,” “quantify,” and “share” came up a lot.

4) We wrote the mission statement – in two parts. (a) We tried to provide a few sentence of context, and to ground our laboratory in the “why” and the “what”; (b) We wrote a few sentences on “how” we do our research.

5) Edit, edit, edit. This was done during the lab meeting, but also over email  Read the full post to see the end result!

Here are a few thoughts and reflections:

  • This was a very worthwhile process – it was an amazing discussion and gave an opportunity to really delve into areas that were well beyond our individual research interests.
  • I have always believed that “patterns in terrestrial arthropod biodiversity” was really what I spend my research time thinking about; it’s good that the collaborative process of developing a mission statement ended up reflecting that!
  • Any specific habitat (e.g., canopy systems, the Arctic), or even any type of arthropod (e.g., beetles, spiders) never remained in our final mission statement. This is terrific, and shows well that the laboratory has diverse interests, but more importantly, that we encourage research in different places and with different model taxa.
  • Yes, jargon remains. This is difficult. We agreed, as a laboratory, that our mission statement would be aimed at a “scientifically literate” audience.
  • I’m an ecologists and we do ecology, yet that word did not end up in the final product. Curious.
  • We ALL agreed about the importance of “sharing” and engagement with a broader audience -many of us do various kinds of outreach, from blogs and tweets to volunteering to talk about insects in local elementary schools. I was extremely pleased and proud that our laboratory sees this is a core activity.

Follow Chris Buddle on Twitter: @CMBuddle

Saving time, getting results: Tips for effective meetings with graduate students

Jeanne VanBriesen at the June 2009 Leopold Leadership training.

Jeanne VanBriesen at the June 2009 Leopold Leadership training.

Note from Pam: Time management comes up in conversation at the Leopold Leadership Program as an ongoing challenge for busy faculty. How do you add to an already full plate? Peter Redstone, a leadership trainer for our core training, facilitates discussions on this topic with Leopold Leadership Fellows and other academic scientists who are linking their knowledge to action. He learned several time-management strategies from Jeanne Van Briesen (2009) that he shares during these conversations. Here’s an interview with Jeanne about how she focuses her meetings with graduate students and postdocs.

Pam:  We know that Peter often shares your time management strategies. What’s one?

Jeanne:  A few years ago I realized I was doing most of the work prior to my one-on-one meetings with my grad students and postdocs. They didn’t come in prepared, but I reviewed all my notes before seeing them. I reversed the situation by requiring them to submit a one-page update on their project before they could “earn” their hour with me.

Pam:  Besides saving time for you, are there other benefits to this practice?

Jeanne: Definitely. One is that the students get practice writing clearly and concisely about their work. They also have to include an “ask” for me in the one-pager, which means they have to articulate a goal for our meeting. This has proven very effective in focusing the conversation. Seeing their updates and hearing what they need help with has helped me track their progress and improve my mentoring. I’m able to more carefully tune my interaction with them to push the research and their professional development forward.

Pam: Is there a template you use with your students?

Jeanne: Not for the weekly meetings, no. The only guidance I give them is “about a page, clear, concise, no cut-and-paste from other things.” I tell them if you can’t come up with a page, you aren’t ready for a meeting.

Pam:  How often do you meet with your students?

Jeanne: I schedule weekly meetings, but the students always have the option to cancel if they can’t get a page prepped. And, if they don’t submit the one-pager, I have the option to cancel too (taking the hour back for my own work). They really do have to “earn” the time to talk about their research with me by showing they’ve prepared. This sends a strong message about the importance of the time we spend together.

Pam: What do you do if they don’t submit a one-pager?

Jeanne: If they don’t submit something, they are responsible for canceling the meeting and letting me know that they won’t be coming. If they cancel two weeks in a row, I insist on a meeting to discuss their workload and how they are managing their time. Usually just the idea of having to meet with me about time management is enough to get the work started again.

Pam: Do you have any advice for someone who’s just starting to implement this practice?

Jeanne: Give written feedback on the one pager. If they know you are reading it and thinking about what they wrote, they will take it more seriously. This also gets them used to the fact that you will provide critical comments on their writing. It can be tough for students to get a first paper draft back with hundreds of redlines and comments. If they are getting weekly feedback of this type they get used to it, and it is not so daunting.

Pam: Are there any other time management strategies you have that you’d be willing to share?

Jeanne: Different time management strategies work for different people because we approach our work and our lives differently. Once you find tools and tips and tricks that work for you, integrate them into your daily activities till they are habits. Enlist people around you to help you keep to them. I have a scheduled writing block every day, and when someone asks for a meeting during that time, I am up front about why I can’t give them that time. A meeting booked with myself for writing is just as important as a meeting booked with someone else!
What time-management strategies are working for you? Leave us a comment or post a tweet.

Jeanne Van Briesen is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and a Leopold Leadership Fellow. She directs the Center for Water Quality in Urban Environmental Systems.


PMI (Plus Minus Interesting) – a variation

Purpose: to describe a simple variation in using PMI (Plus Minus Interesting) suitable for smaller and larger groups. Note: PMI is an Edward de Bono thinking tool which Martin Bloxham and I have used since 2009 in our training sessions with Leopold Fellows.

Description: Recently, I facilitated a 90 minute session for the trustees of a UK environmental charity and representatives of the local government authority. The purpose of the session was to consider a proposed commercial development that was likely to be controversial for trustees. The proposal was described in outline by one of the trustees who then invited questions for information. This took 40 minutes.

Then we did a PMI on the proposal with all 14 people in the room seated at tables laid out in a board room style. I stood at the end with a flipchart.

For many of them, this was their first experience of PMI. Not wanting to have to do a demo first, I explained the process and repeated the rules several times as we went. It was important to keep all the information in the group and to keep the process moving. So, I decided to try running PMI as a ‘go-round’ – ie. a process in which we went around the room in order. I continued it until no-one had anything more to contribute. Anyone could pass at any time. We did OPV (identifying which other points of view to consider) after we had done a first run at the ‘Plusses’.  It took approx 25 minutes to complete the PMI. The group then spent 20 minutes time discussing some of the key points identified.

I had never done a PMI as a go-round before and found it worked very well. It allowed everyone to stay in a single group and to see and hear everything. It kept the process moving at a good pace, gave everyone a voice and also gave people time to think up new ideas in response to earlier ones. Most importantly, it helped the people developing the commercial proposal to have a much better understanding of the key issues perceived by the trustees.

The only problem I encountered was the speed of writing I needed to do at the flipchart to keep up – doing my best to use their own words.

Resources used:  Flipchart and pens 

Other comments:  It would be interesting to hear of other’s experience with PMI/OPV – any lessons learned and variations employed. Martin and I never cease to be amazed at how versatile and powerful is this deceptively simple process. Edward de Bono has described it as the most essential of all his thinking tools.


An Academic Takes Some Leopold Training to the Real World of Management

During the 2013 Leopold Leadership training we learned many leadership skills and techniques for organizing consensus from groups with competing stakeholders. Last month I was able to use one of these techniques in a real-world situation, and wanted to share my experience with you!

The situation was the semiannual meeting of the Governing Council of the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS: (one of three west coast portions of of the NOAA US Integrated Ocean Observing System program).  The goal was to achieve consensus on only four activities to define as the organization’s overarching priorities for the years to come. I am the chair of the governing council (, and have been heavily involved over the past year doing strategic planning and writing a formal decision-making framework, mission and vision statement. We academics don’t usually get a lot of practice with these kinds of skills and I was a little nervous about this!

I decided to try out the “Think-Pair-Share” technique introduced at the Leopold training by Peter Redstone and Martin Bloxham of Barefoot Thinking Ltd. This took some planning. It is not something you can just slip casually into a meeting. I started with an explanation of what we were going to do and a description of how it would work, a reassurance that everyone would have their voices heard this way, and a description of the desired end point. I also had help from the CeNCOOS director’s staff. Aric Bickell, the program manager, has had some facilitator training and he was on board with helping me organize this. We met at least a week before the meeting to visualize how we could make this work and to make sure we had the proper items (well, remember all that means is a bunch of sticky-pads, some pens, and a good flip chart or white board!).

With this particular group of highly opinionated and outspoken academics, business owners, and nonprofit leaders, typically these conversations veer towards the loudest voices in the room. And my experience with this and other scientist-led boards is that everyone wants to talk, and the topics can veer off and bifurcate endlessly. So I wasn’t sure that we would ever be able to achieve consensus. Nor was I confident that folks would be amenable to being led down the kind of structured conversational path that “think-pair-share” requires. But wow! It worked amazingly well. Everyone was enthusiastic and engaged, everyone felt their voices were heard, and people were happy to realize how much overlap there was in opinions. We were able to narrow down to four overarching priorities fairly quickly because we had so many pieces of thoughts in common on all our little sticky notes. This was a real breakthrough for this group — we can often talk for hours and not make much progress. It felt collaborative, in a working-for-the-good-of-the-organization type way rather than the advocating-for-my-own-interest-group type of way that often characterizes the representation on these kinds of councils (we are broken into research, non-profit, business, education, government agency categories, and many of the board members also have professional programs that do funded work with CeNCOOS, so definitely there are some conflicts of interest). People commented to me afterwards that they felt they had a better chance to speak their opinion they are accustomed to, and everyone was happy with the speed of the process.

Thanks again Martin and Peter for your excellent training! I don’t think I can use this for everyday scenarios like faculty meetings and such. It takes too much ahead-of-time planning. But for big meetings where a group faces a looming decision I think it is wonderful.

Does anyone else have experience with a similar situation? Any feedback on what worked for you and what did not?

Helping colleagues to put knowledge to action

Greetings colleagues,

Here at Esri we’ve now completed the Oceans Summit which was the company’s first-ever high-level strategic workshop focused on new thinking and approaches for ocean science and resource management. I reached out to Martin Bloxham of Barefoot strategies for help with implementing the PMI-OPV technique (plus-minus-interesting, other point of view) that he taught the 2011 Leopold cohort. I had wanted to use this technique for the breakout groups at this Oceans Summit. I can’t tell you how much of a success it was! Some of the scientists were a bit shell-shocked, saying that they had never been in breakout groups that went so smoothly and were so productive! It was fun to teach and fun to see it in action. And from Esri’s standpoint, we got exactly the feedback that we needed.

You can see an overview of the meeting via this blog post, Esri Convenes Historic Oceans Summit, and a summary of the results of the PMI exercise at How is GIS Meeting the Needs of Ocean (and other) Sciences? Plus, Minus, Interesting…..

The PPT that I used to teach the techniques, based on Martin’s is available at [19.2 Mb]

This is so much fun being able to put into direct practice what we learned at Leopold!