A Magical Meeting Story from Johannes Petereit, Ph.D. Student at the German Research Center for Geosciences


Welcome to Magical Meetings Stories, a series where I chat with professional facilitators, meeting practitioners, leaders, and CEOs across industries about their meeting culture. We dive deep into a specific magical meeting they’ve run, including their approach to facilitation design, and their tips and tricks for running meetings people thrive in. 

Today’s story is with Johannes Petereit, Ph.D. Student and graduate coordinator at the German Research Center for GeoSciences (also known as GFZ Potsdam, which is the national research center for Earth Sciences in Germany). He started as a Ph.D. student in 2015 and is currently in the final stages of finishing his thesis. Since the beginning of 2020, Johannes has been responsible for building and coordinating the graduate program of the institute, where he organizes and conducts trainings for graduate students. I spoke with Johannes about a meeting for other trainers facilitators in the natural sciences field he participates in called Train Together Forever, what prompted it, and what makes it unique.

“We want to change the way science is done.” -Johannes Petereit

Tribe Mentality

Train Together Forever is made up of a group of trainers, facilitators, educators, and coaches who meet each week to discuss various ways to conduct and facilitate online trainings and try out online tools (such as MURAL and Slido). The trainings mostly pertain to the natural sciences field, as most of the group members have a natural sciences background. The meeting was prompted by the first COVID-19 lockdown in Germany as an initiative to promote online training skills and learn from others in the field, as no meetings, events, or conferences were happening in person. 

According to Johannes, a big part of the meeting’s purpose is to create a space for scientists, trainers, and educators to collaborate with fellow members of their field about approaches to training. “We want to change the way science is done at the moment in academia because it’s a somewhat toxic environment for many who are in this field. I would say it’s a tribe, and we come together to move forward into the same direction, which we defined for us.” He noted there are a lot of scientists that want to solve problems, but having a way to collaborate with each other positively in order to come up with answers to the big questions isn’t happening very often (but should be). 

The meeting was originally designed by Alexander Schiller–a professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of Jena in Germany–but it has since expanded to be community-run. At the time and as a result of the lockdown, Alexander started offering a short workshop on interactive training and facilitation online for free and started inviting people from his network.  Participants had the option to pay what they wanted. The group gained momentum and developed into a safe space for others to learn more about online training, where everyone was a beginner (aside from Alexander and a few of his colleagues) and had the chance to test out online training tools and share knowledge. “We were sharing and learning together and improving, giving each other feedback, but all in a positive way,” Johannes explained.

Johannes said the meeting has evolved into a community, which he attributes to a reason for its success.“We are somewhat of a tribe. That’s actually the thing that makes this meeting magical for me, because most of us, we have never met in person, but somehow we know each other.” The group is currently working on several projects, including a workshop curriculum for trainers who want to be trainers in the natural sciences field, a small conference for members of the natural sciences field, and an upcoming website. 

Let’s take a closer look at Johannes and Alexander’s process to learn what made this meeting magical.

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The Meeting

Pre-Meeting Prep

Two-three members of the group gather to brainstorm, prep, and gain early feedback on ideas and topics to discuss in the meeting. The roles of the meeting facilitator and leader are on a volunteer, rotating basis and they both change each week. Whichever team member is leading that week’s meeting will send out the calendar invite and plan the meeting agenda, which varies but has included a mix of presentation slides, MURALs, new tools, and online activities. A calendar invitation with a Zoom link is always sent before the meeting, and the information is cross-posted on Slack and sent via email. 

Exercise

Train Together Forever is held on Zoom every Thursday at 5 PM CET for about two hours. There are typically around eight attendees but attendance varies and sometimes there are as many as 15 participants. The group is made up of scientists, trainers, and educators in the natural sciences field. One of the ground rules is that everyone is welcome – the group fosters an inclusive culture and wants to ensure they are providing a safe space where people feel comfortable coming to. 

Roles and Responsibilities: Johannes explained that not one single person is in charge of the group: “We are in it all together and we are deciding together and trying to move forward together.” There is, however, the rotating meeting facilitator/leader who determines the meeting agenda. The meeting facilitator for each week is selected at the end of the previous week’s meeting, on a volunteer basis.

Meeting Format: The meeting typically starts with an informal check-in, where attendees catch up and socialize. Then the facilitator will segway into calling the meeting to order and start what they have planned for the week. The bulk of the meeting lasts for about one hour and 45 minutes, Johannes said. The last ten minutes are spent discussing what’s next, including determining the following week’s facilitator. 

Purposefully Casual: This informal meeting structure was prompted by new attendees joining every week, and everyone taking turns presenting. Everyone has different presentation styles and ideas, and because of this, it sparked an emphasis on trying new things and bringing new concepts to the meetings, Johannes explained. 

Outputs and Results

Johannes and I discussed the main outputs and results produced by the Train Together Forever meetings. “The output is usually improving existing concepts, workshop concepts, because we are trying them out in this workshop and then getting feedback or just training. It’s also a training space, so we have a lot of newbies and they have a safe space to try things out before they have the real workshop afterwards.” Other outcomes are additional meetings that have evolved (such as a workshop curriculum to get certified as a scientist trainer), the website, and the upcoming online conference.

Tools

There are a few tools Johannes and team use to create magic and connection in the Train Forever Together meeting:

  • Zoom – Fosters connection using conversation, chats, and breakout sessions.
  • MURAL – Digital workspace for virtual collaboration.
  • Slido – Q&A polling platform for meetings and events.

Opportunities and Reflection

I asked Johannes what makes this meeting unique, and he again highlighted the tribe and community aspects: “That it’s organic. That it’s not an obligation. This tribe part I was talking earlier about, that a community evolved out of it. It’s not that it’s just meeting the purpose of learning or something like that. It’s really that there is a culture and the community that has evolved out of it and projects that are started together in subgroups or altogether.”

We also discussed what makes him most proud of these meetings. Johannes identified the friendships that have evolved out of it, especially during a pandemic and lockdown. He’s proud that the group is able to do life online – not in a “gaming, being sucked into an online game world kind of way,” but in a new and exciting way, one where everyone is always trying to improve and generate new ideas.

We ended our conversation on the topic of opportunity for improvement. In Johannes’ ideal world, he would like to be liberated from the traditional virtual meeting setup (sitting at the computer) and instead be able to move around while having the meeting while also doing other activities, such as cooking. An interesting idea he mentioned was if a drone had a computer screen attached to it and could follow someone around, it would allow people to participate in the meeting while also encouraging movement and activity. “This would also change the dynamic of a lot of those meetings,” he said.


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