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162. Get More Done with LabScrum w/ Dr. Lisa May

It’s 8PM on a Wednesday night, and you’re sitting in a quiet lab all alone. It’s your turn to present during lab meeting on Friday, and that familiar sense of panic starts to set in.

What HAVE you been doing with your time? You flip back through the lab notebook and remember how you spent the first week waiting on reagents. The second week is a blur, and the third week, every dish in the incubator got contaminated for reasons no one will admit.

Now you have a day to try to come up with something… anything… to show for yourself.

Of course, it didn’t have to be this way, and with some techniques from the tech industry, you’ll never have to fret over a ‘missing month’ again.

A Failure to Plan…

It’s no secret that PhDs take a long time. We often lament the frequent failed experiments, but is that really where all of our time is going?

In truth, even when they make concrete plans, many trainees lose months or years to some common lab dysfunctions.

Do you wait weeks to hear back from your PI on a manuscript review or experiment question? Have you lost time waiting for reagents to ship when someone else used them up? How often do you prepare an experiment, then vie for time on a common piece of equipment like microscopes or the mass spec?

Even if you had a plan, these failures in lab-communication can slow or stop your progress.

Make it Agile

Luckily, labs aren’t the only organizations in the world that need to plan and communicate across a team. In fact, industry has developed myriad ways to organize a project based on unique resources and constraints.

In the tech industry, companies often use a process called “Agile” or “Scrum.” It’s an organizational framework focused on producing things customers want (apps, services, products) in less time and for less money.

Traditional planning might include a two year development schedule with detailed steps and checkpoints. But in a field like software where entire sectors might rises and fall in a matter of months, a two-year plan is worthless. Companies that can quickly change strategy and adapt their plan have more chances to succeed.

That’s where Scrum comes in. Named for the huddle behavior in a rugby match, Scrum is marked by frequent team ‘huddles’ to organize the work. The team, facilitated by its ‘ScrumMaster’ or ‘Scrum Leader’, breaks down the work into week-long chunks called ‘Sprints.’

During the sprint, the team gets together daily for a very brief ‘stand-up’ meeting where each member answers three questions:

  1. What did I accomplish yesterday?
  2. What do I intend to work on today?
  3. What is blocking my progress?

The stand-up meeting may only last 15 minutes, but by the end, each team member will know what the others are doing, and how they can help.

Scrum for Labs

Lisa May was completing her PhD when the dinner conversation with her husband turned to lab. She lamented that there didn’t seem to always be a clear research plan, that lab members were competing for resources, and that there were multiple external forces blocking her progress.

Her husband, a software developer, suggested she look into the planning practices he used at work.

She did, and LabScrum was born.

This week, we talk with Dr. May about how she developed the LabScrum framework and how you can improve your own lab’s productivity with a little planning.

She describes what a typical week will look like and how each lab can adapt the planning practice to meet their own unique needs.

If you want to learn more, visit for resource guides, case studies, and more.

Or check out Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland.

Happy Scrumming!

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