We had a lab retreat! (and you should too)

Peccoud Lab Retreat 2018 was a big success

This weekend, the Peccoud lab went on a three-day retreat at the Cliff House Hotel in Manitou, CO. A retreat for a small academic lab may sound like an unusual idea, but business retreats are common, and our lab strives to operate like a small business.

On the production side, we have project scientists, graduate students, and post-docs. Our primary function is to produce data and publish manuscripts describing our results. On the operations side, the PI and project manager report our progress to funding agencies and submit funding proposals.

In order for the lab to run successfully as a business, we have to publish papers and submit successful grant proposals. The goal of our retreat was to come away with a unified plan for 2018: What proposals should we submit? Who should we collaborate with? What papers are we going to publish?

On the first day of the retreat, we each described a dream research project in order of increasing seniority. This exercise enabled us to identify shared interests and consider research areas we have not previously explored.

On the second day, we began by discussing potential collaborators. The PI first reviewed the plusses and minuses of collaborations and described the qualifications of an ideal collaborator; for instance, expertise in an area we lack, shared common goals, a flexible schedule, and geographic proximity. We also reviewed the strengths our lab has to offer, and what expertise we would most like to engage. We then considered past and current collaborations and discussed researchers we would like to build a relationship with in the future.

After identifying potential collaborators, we discussed which funding opportunities to explore. The PI reviewed types of funding: grants, foundations, contracts, corporate partnerships, and gifts. After weighing the challenges and merits of each, we decided on which opportunities we want to pursue in the coming year and strategized about how best to obtain them.

“There is a very big difference between working and doing your job”

Finally, we reviewed our internal operations to determine what is and isn’t working well. This exercise was abstract, but in some ways the most valuable. The key takeaway was that there is a very big difference between working and doing your job. In a lab, doing your job means earning your keep. To earn your keep, you have to maximize your productivity in efforts that help bring money into the lab: generating figures and publishing manuscripts, marketing and performing partnership capabilities, and submitting successful proposals.

In addition to general time management strategies such as the “Getting Things Done” or “GTD” approach, we also discussed time tracking tools such as TOGGL, and decided how we want to implement such tools in the lab. We reviewed software tools we are currently using and have used previously, and made decisions about which are the most effective in optimizing our productivity. These included task managers, email sorting tools, electronic laboratory notebooks, and electronic communication within the lab. We also came up with an action plan regarding Standard Operating Procedures: how they will be recorded and where they will be stored.

Overall, the operations discussion was incredibly motivating. We came away feeling more organized and with a better idea of how to prioritize tasks. The exercise also had a unifying effect. Everyone in the lab had a say in how to carry out our operations and which strategies work for us.

On the morning of the third day, we came up with a concrete plan for which proposals to submit in the coming year to which agencies. We decided who would take the lead on writing each, and which collaborators we should engage. We additionally discussed strategies for marketing our capabilities to potential partners.

I think it’s fair to say the retreat was a success, and well worth the cost in terms of time and expenses. We developed a concrete action plan and kick started a mindset that will no-doubt improve our productivity. In future retreats, it would be useful to allocate time specifically to planning out manuscripts, and to add a discussion section about conferences.

We also had a bit of fun and got to know each other all a little better. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to take an old-timey lab photo (maybe next year), but we did get to take in some of the sights (Garden of the Gods), and enjoy an assortment of great eats and local craft beers. Importantly, we shared comradery and a lot of laughs.

My favorite moment? When the beertender (or beerista?) at a local brewery regaled us with stories about their esteemed brewmaster who majored in “some useless degree…like biology” 😂

The Peccoud Lab at the Cliff House (photograph by Jenny Harding and a helpful stranger)

Garden of the Gods (photograph by Jenny Harding)

lunch at the Stagecoach Inn (photograph by Jenny Harding)

Stagecoach Inn in Manitou (photograph by Jenny Harding)

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