Have an Idea that Could Improve Science?

by Tracey Weissgerber

Tips for Launching a Successful Initiative

Most eLife Ambassadors joined the program because they have ideas about how to improve science. If you have an idea but aren’t sure how to get started, this post is for you. We share some tips from the eLife Ambassadors Meta-research team on how to launch your initiative, build a team and turn your idea into a reality. The meta-research team started in February (Slack channel #meta-research). Our nine team members are completing a meta-research study on improving the quality of images in scientific publications. These are some tips and lessons learned for launching a successful initiative.

Things to consider when proposing an initiative

  • Introduce yourself. Whether you propose your project on Slack or during a call, it’s important to explain who you are, why you’re interested in your topic and why you’re the right person to lead this initiative. Time is a valuable resource. Before others decide to join your initiative, they’ll want to know that you’re someone that they can work with and that the project is likely to be a success.
  • Provide opportunities for team members to shape the direction of the project. Your team members will have a wide range of skills and knowledge that could enhance your project. Working together to identify creative ways of using everyone’s unique abilities and expertise will give team members a sense of ownership. The original proposal for the meta-research team, for example, was that all team members would work together to propose, design, conduct and publish a meta-research study. Every team member proposed a project and the team selected one project to complete as a group. Meta-research studies that focus on a single field aren’t always generalizable to other fields. We are taking advantage of the expertise of different team members to improve generalizability by collecting data on papers published in three different fields (cell biology, physiology, plant sciences). Our team’s two experts in programming and data analysis are creating specialized online tools for data collection.
  • Offer leadership opportunities: Leading part of a project is a valuable learning experience for many ECRs and will give you more time to focus on guiding the initiative. Shared leadership allows our team to accomplish more – team members will be able to work on different parts of the project simultaneously and the project will still move forward during periods when you are busy. The meta-research team works in pairs, with each pair leading a different part of the project (i.e. screening articles, developing a data abstraction protocol, creating data abstraction forms, abstracting data, etc.). Leadership teams consult with the rest of the group to get everyone’s input on major decisions.
  • What will team members gain from participating? How will this contribute to their professional development? Providing this information up front will help ECRs decide whether they want to participate. Several meta-research team members emphasized that learning a new skill and being authors on a peer reviewed paper that could improve scientific practice were important factors in their decision to join the project.
  • Specify the level of knowledge or experience required to participate. Is this a “learn by doing” project, or do team members need extensive expertise to participate? The meta-research team is a “learn by doing” project – team members had no prior experience and most joined because they wanted to learn a new skill that they could apply to their own field in the future.

Launch Your Initiative & Build a Team

 

  • Creating a team environment and showing regular progress is important to keep everyone actively involved. Interest in the topic is enough to get people to join the channel or listen in on the first call, however this isn’t enough to sustain active involvement throughout the project. Meta-research team members felt that team dynamic was very important. This included getting to know other team members on calls and by working in pairs and feeling that decisions about the project were made as team after considering everyone’s input.  Clear evidence of progress on each call has also been critically important to keep everyone motivated.

 

  • Be an active leader. You’re responsible for driving the project forward. Set priorities, goals and timelines for your initiative in consultation with your team. You may need to adjust these throughout the project, but consistently making progress towards your final product is important. Get to know your team members and use team discussions to solicit everyone’s input on key decisions and build consensus. Understanding the rationale for a decision is often just as important as clearly communicating what was decided. Follow your agenda on calls and keep the discussion moving.  
  • Invest the time needed to make your initiative a success. This might include scheduling “catch up” calls with individual team members who joined the group late or were unable to attend a call. You may need to complete extra tasks to keep the project moving if other team members don’t have time or lack the appropriate expertise.
  • Most initiatives start small. Don’t be discouraged if the post proposing your initiative only gets one or two replies – post a Doodle poll anyway as others may have been uncomfortable replying. Your first call may only include a few people, especially if your project requires active participation over an extended period of time. A small and committed team can accomplish a lot. Your initiative will attract new members over time if it’s clear that the team is working well together and making progress. Quarterly calls can be a great opportunity to attract new members. You can also send a DM to new people who join you channel to introduce yourself and find out why they joined. When you post a new call announcement, invite everyone to join even if they haven’t been on a call before or didn’t complete the poll. Encourage new team members to introduce themselves on calls or in Slack.
  • Figure out the basics of Slack: The basic features don’t take long to learn. Using Slack is important for team building, as this is the platform that ambassadors use. Check in regularly so that you can reply quickly if your team members need something – communicating with you shouldn’t be a rate limiting step. Pin important posts that your team members will need to view frequently.
  • Slack vs. team calls: Use Slack for easy stuff, including day to day communication, sharing resources, checking in with team members, resolving quick questions and providing updates. Schedule regular team calls to discuss more complicated issues, make decisions about the scope or implementation of the project, plan next steps or present new content.
  • Schedule frequent calls for your initiative: Regular and frequent calls (i.e. every 2-3 weeks) are important to keep everyone actively involved. It’s difficult to make progress on large channel calls where the agenda includes updates on many different initiatives. People may be uncomfortable talking on larger calls or the organizer may need to move on to another project before everyone has had a chance to comment. Set up calls for your specific initiative instead – small calls where everyone is focused on one project are much more productive.
  • Respect everyone’s schedule: Every participant will have periods where he or she is not able to participate due to vacation, grant deadlines, experimental schedules, field work, etc. Ask team members to let you know if they have a busy period coming up, and to avoid leadership roles during busy periods. Check in with team members when they return to update them on the team’s progress and discuss next steps.

Managing team calls

  • Post an agenda before the call that includes all links that people may need while on the call. If you share additional resources or comments in the chat box during the call, remember to save any information that you need to another location. The chat box will disappear as soon as the organizer exits the call.
  • Let team members know in advance if you’d like them to introduce themselves or present an update on their part of the initiative.
  • Allow time for introductions, especially if it’s your first call or new people are joining the team. This is essential to create a team atmosphere where everyone is comfortable sharing ideas. Understanding why people joined the call will give you insight into their skills and expertise, how they might fit into the team and what parts of the initiative they may want to help with.
  • Ask everyone to share their webcam video on small calls. Seeing everyone makes communication easier and helps team members get to know one another. Having all members unmuted throughout the call makes it easy for everyone to contribute without awkward pauses. Individual team members may need to be muted from time to time if there is feedback or background noise.
  • Plan for technical problems. Check Slack when the call is starting, as members may post if they are having trouble logging in. If a team member’s microphone is not working, ask them to post comments in the comment box so that their ideas can be discussed with the group. Ask another team member to monitor the comments box and bring things to your attention if you miss anything. If your internet connection is poor, designate another team member to lead the meeting in your place in case you go offline.
  • Consider your teams’ preferences when scheduling the next call. Ask team members how long they think it will take to complete any assigned tasks and when they’d like the next call to be. If you have team members in on different continents, find out what times of day work best for everyone. Have a clear plan for what everyone will be working on and how you will communicate between calls.

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