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:

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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

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