Bennett, L. Michelle PhD*; Gadlin, Howard PhD†
Scientific collaboration is more strikingly prevalent today than it was decades ago.1 In many areas of biomedical science, the trend is toward catalyzing collaborative efforts that bring together researchers with diverse scientific backgrounds and perspectives to address perplexing questions and solve complex problems that benefit from an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach.2
We describe collaboration and team science along a continuum extending from collaborations with minimal levels of interaction to scientific teams with significant levels of interaction and integration (Fig. 1). To illustrate, on the low interaction end of the spectrum, an independent investigator’s laboratory may have limited interaction with other laboratories, yet within the laboratory, the laboratory members may collaborate to achieve a particular set of objectives. An intermediate level of interaction could be characterized by a more multidisciplinary approach where 2 or more researchers from different laboratories work on a project together, yet are not highly integrated. In this scenario, each might bring his or her specific expertise and skills to a project by performing experiments and analyzing data with a common or related set of samples and then put the results together to tell a scientific story. Those participating in this effort may or may not continue interacting when the work is completed.
When we talk about a highly integrated and interactive collaborative team, which is the focus of this article, we are referring to a group that is led by 1 or more scientists and is composed of researchers with diverse backgrounds and different areas of expertise. The collaborators will have developed common objectives, coordinated their resources, and composed a shared agenda of activities directed toward achieving those objectives. Typically, such collaborations are identifiable by a number of characteristics that reveal the ability of the group to achieve a high level of integration and interaction: meeting regularly, physically or virtually; defining a vision and setting goals shaped by a central scientific idea; communicating effectively; and encouraging intellectual disagreement. Frequently, the group has a high level of trust and members openly share both data and credit for the research accomplishments. Such teams have a principal leader or co-leaders, and it is often the case that additional leaders emerge from the formed team to take on new aspects of the project that then contribute to the larger whole.
Of course, it is not just the desire to work closely with colleagues that has led to the growth of large-scale scientific collaborations and teams. In many ways, we can say that changes in the problems that attract scientists’ attention have made collaborations necessary. And these collaborations have not been limited to the world of science. More than 20 years ago, organizational behavior expert Barbara Gray listed many types of problems that lend themselves to collaboration in her book on management issues that arise from changes in the structure and functioning of large organizations. Interestingly, while her list was not compiled with science in mind, the types of problems she identified as suitable for collaborative efforts are similar to those for which scientific collaborations are also appropriate.3 Some of them include ill-defined problems, the existence of disagreements regarding definition(s), problems characterized by technical complexity, issues with ambiguity of scientific findings, situations that do not yield to unilateral or unidisciplinary efforts, and challenges where existing approaches are insufficient. There are multiple examples of the tremendous impact that a successful collaboration can have, such as the discovery of the causative agent for severe acute respiratory syndrome4 and the successful development of the human papillomavirus vaccine.5
Research organizations are increasingly enthusiastic about collaborative approaches and are encouraging their faculty and staff to work in a more integrative fashion in recognition that teams are likely to have a faster and fuller impact than an individual can achieve working independently. Infrastructure is being put in place both by institutions and funding agencies to promote more interaction, such as the building of large open laboratories where multiple researchers with similar interests can work in close proximity. The sharing of ideas through the creation of interdisciplinary work groups, and joint ownership of research projects is also now possible with the ability to submit grants as co-PIs to the National Institutes of Health.6,7 It is noteworthy that voluntary cooperation is being seen among institutions that would otherwise be considered competitors in many ways.
In an extensive study of collaborations in physics, Shrum et al.8 identified 4 factors that contribute to the impetus to form collaborations:
1. The interpersonal context (relations among scientists)
2. The funding context
3. The sectoral context (academic, corporate, governmental)
4. The context of participating organizations (university departments, research laboratories, etc)
While all these aspects of collaborative work are very important, we will focus primarily on what they call the interpersonal context—the direct interactions and communications among scientific collaborators and those factors that contribute to the successful leadership and conduct of collaborative and team science, with occasional passing references to the policies and practices of university departments and corporate and governmental laboratories.
CHARACTERISTICS OF EFFECTIVE TEAMS
It is relatively easy to cite examples and refer to scientific accomplishments that represent and demonstrate the value of scientific collaboration. It is much more difficult to identify in these examples the specific skills and approaches needed to spearhead or participate on a successful highly collaborative and integrated research team what skills and abilities both team leaders and participants possesses as active contributors to successful team science. We performed in-depth interviews with National Institutes of Health researchers who were part of 5 teams that either were successful, did not succeed in getting fully off the ground, or came to an end because of conflict. This approach enabled us to identify both fundamental characteristics critical for effective team functioning, as well as more complex elements that provided insights into what contributes to success and the inherent challenges of collaborative research. When we use the terms successful and effective, we are referring to teams that develop a reasonable level of cohesiveness and that manage to pursue their missions. We do not mean to imply that the science was “correct” or that the results they achieved are those for which they hoped.
There are a number of fundamental elements that, when tended to by the leader and participants of a team, put that group on a productive path and support the group’s scientific goals (Table 1). Theoretically speaking, these elements seem obvious, and at the intellectual level, they are extremely intuitive. However, in practice, these facets can be difficult to conceptualize and truly challenging to execute in the everyday practice of performing research because they require not only developing self-awareness but also modifying behavior and learning new approaches and practices for bringing together others to shift a paradigm, solve a complex scientific problem, or meet a deadline.
MOVING FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE: SELF-AWARENESS AND TEAM-AWARENESS
Taking the knowledge about what needs to be done and translating it into how one routinely does business in the laboratory setting requires both tremendous self-awareness, as well as an awareness of the personalities, tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses of those with whom you work. It also requires understanding what happens during the formation of teams and the importance of each of the steps on the path to high integration and interaction among the members.
Developing self-awareness about how you operate, such as your communication style, approach for managing conflict, personality type, and how you give and receive feedback, is an important first step. The next step is broadening this self-awareness across the entire team to achieve a shared understanding of the most effective and efficient modes of working together. In other words, self-awareness can provide a foundation for self-control in a wide variety of situations. One can self–regulate his or her reactions to others and events to focus on the issues at hand while managing potentially disruptive emotional reactions. This keeps discussion centered on ideas and greatly restrains the impacts of the affective component. The last step is assimilating all the learning and skill building and integrating it into how you “do business,” which typically means developing some new habits and the motivation to incorporate them into your routine practices.
Short of years of psychotherapy, there are many tools available to efficiently assess your current styles. For style, when in conflict, there is the Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode assessment,9 and for personality types, there is the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator10 and the 360-degree assessment for multiple facets of individual leadership.11 The important thing is not to classify people into different personality types but rather to be aware of the vast differences in ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving and to understand how these translate into different preferences in interaction with others. People often start with a 360-degree evaluation to obtain feedback about how others, at all levels, perceive them. On the basis of this input, priorities can be established for what new skills to learn and which behaviors could be modified.
UNDERSTANDING TEAM DEVELOPMENT
When a new team is formed or an existing team experiences changes in membership, understanding the dynamics of team development prepares the leader and the participants for managing the process. In the 1960s, psychologist and group dynamics expert Bruce Tuckman introduced and described 4 regularly occurring stages of team development: forming, storming, norming, and performing.12 This work did not come specifically from studying scientific teams, yet the characteristics and key points are highly applicable to the scientific setting.
Forming: During the forming stage, the team is established using either a top-down or bottom-up approach. It is at this stage that the key scientific ideas and incipient hypotheses are formulated and potential participants in the team/collaboration are identified and invited. Forming is often a period of great intellectual excitement mixed with attention to formal organizational requirements, concerns about funding. Once the team has been officially “formed” it moves to the storming phase, where it takes shape.
Storming: During this phase, team members establish roles and responsibilities delineate lines of communication and generally develop the processes that will create a functioning scientific unit. This is the time when team members also move toward various degrees of interdependence. Understandably, this process may tap into wariness about diminished autonomy as well as trigger disagreements or turf battles. Having to take into account perspectives other than one’s own often is experienced as a threat to one’s own well-established ways of thinking and doing and can be manifested as a reluctance to appreciate the perspectives and contributions of people from different disciplines or training. One of the most important tasks of a leader is to help people appreciate the potential value of differences that might otherwise seem to be threatening. Ironically, this does not require an insistence on harmony and consensus but rather the creation of an atmosphere in which collegial scientific disagreement is valued and supported and premature pressure to consensus is resisted. In these circumstances, people will begin to open up to one another.
Norming: During the norming stage, team members begin to work together effectively and efficiently, start to develop trust and comfort with one another, and learn they can rely on each other.
Performing: At the performing stage, the team works together seamlessly, focuses on a shared goal, and efficiently resolves issues or problems that emerge.
While the forming stage centers on the scientific base for the team’s work, successfully navigating the storming phase is the most critical for truly effective team functioning. It is during the storming stage that the threats to one’s status, power, and autonomy come into play and can provide the basis for the sometimes significant positioning among team members.13 For an individual moving into teamwork, the threats include experiencing one’s status as a member of a group as opposed to being viewed as an individual or the sole expert, sharing power and control of a project with others, and becoming interdependent.
The major tasks to accomplish during the storming stage include developing a shared vision, implementing processes for managing conflict while creating a safe space for open and honest discussion, articulating expectations, and defining roles and responsibilities. Those teams that successfully get through the storming phase emerge on the other side with much stronger trust and can then slide into the norming phase. Some teams never get past storming.
On the basis of our research, practical experience, and literature reviews, we firmly believe that trust plays an essential role in the functioning of teams and the effectiveness of collaborations. Trust is not an easy matter to discuss with scientists. For many, it seems hopelessly subjective and even softheaded. Besides, talking about trust inevitably means analyzing relationships and most scientists want to focus their attention on the scientific problems that drive their research, not their working relationships with their colleagues. However, especially as science becomes more complex and research benefits from cooperative work among people with different areas of expertise and trained in different subspecialties, the dynamics of work relationships play an increasingly important role in the scientific research itself.
Consider the simple fact that participating in any joint venture means relinquishing some of one’s individual control or power over the outcome of that venture. When one collaborates, one has partners who now have a say in the decision making process. Furthermore, the performance of each individual member has impact on overall team performance; there is mutual dependence. Dependence begets vulnerability and, without trust, vulnerability leads to protective or defensive rather than collaborative action. Scientific collaborations are especially interesting because they occur not just among people whose areas of expertise are complementary but also among people who are competitors or potential competitors. To work together, competitors must give up some of their autonomy and so must have confidence that their mutual interests will take precedence over their individual interests. We believe that trust, whether grounded in a strong personal relationship or created and reflected in a written agreement, plays a critical role in the functioning of scientific teams and collaborations.
To understand trust, it is helpful to distinguish 3 different types of trust. The most personal form of trust can be called identity-based trust. “At this level, trust exists because the parties effectively understand and appreciate each other’s wants, desires and values; this mutual understanding is developed to the point that each party can effectively act for the other.”14 In most daily interactions and transactions, we rely on a less personal form of trust—calculus-based trust. This is the sort of trust that is engendered when we interact with people who keep their word, meet deadlines, and fulfill the expectations agreed upon in our communications with them. Such trust is not dependent on a deep personal understanding between people, but over time, it can contribute to the development of a personal bond. Finally, and this is particularly important in the world of science, there is competence-based trust.15 Competence-based trust is built around the confidence we have in the capabilities and skills of another person. This is the sort of skill that is referenced when a PI asserts that her technician has “good hands.” While this sort of trust is also not especially personal, it can, in a long-term working relationship, contribute to the growth of a deeper, more personal trust between collaborators. At the same time, we should note that the erosion of calculus- or identity-based trust can also lead to doubt about another’s competence.
In thinking about the importance of trust, we must consider 2 aspects of effective team functioning: cohesiveness and scientific quality and productivity. In science, as in most activities, cohesiveness alone is not enough to consider a team as successful. Clearly, while high levels of trust can contribute to high levels of team cohesiveness, cohesiveness is in no way a guarantee of quality or productivity. Trust then is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for effective performance by scientific teams. There is considerable social science research that demonstrates that trust has a significant impact on team performance. We appreciate Kirk and Ferrin’s suggestion that “trust … provides a representation of how individuals understand their relationship with another party in situations that involve risk or vulnerability.”16 They describe how trust affects both how we assess the behavior of another person and how we interpret the past and present actions of the other party. In turn, these assessments affect motivation levels and cooperativeness among team members. Of course, the effects of trust are not only interpersonal. In research, trust becomes especially important because it affects team members’ judgments about another’s abilities, designs, observations, and scientific results.
When one loses trust in a colleague, everything that person does becomes suspect. And in science, confidence in another’s intentions and commitment is just one aspect of trust. Think of the impact in a research team when people began to doubt the data produced by a team member. Even if there are no questions at all about an individual’s character, it is almost impossible to work effectively with a colleague whose work itself is not trusted.
For all these reasons, we would argue that it is important for those forming teams and building collaborations to take specific steps to proactively build trust rather than just hope that it emerges spontaneously from the interactions among team members. As in other building projects, construction begins with scaffolding. For scientific teams, the scaffolding is made up of explicit statements of understanding among the participants in the team. We suggest explicit conversations during which prospective partners spell out what they expect of one another, how data and materials will be shared, who will do what, how decisions will be made, and how disagreements or conflicts will be resolved. In addition, providing explicit policies and procedures that all members of the collaboration are expected to follow establishes a platform for calculus-based trust. But even the best-designed policies and procedures need thoughtful implementation to engender the sort of trust necessary for a scientific team to flourish. It is in interactions and communications while building a team that this trust is formed.
BUILDING A TEAM
Building a team is always an exercise in managing differences and embracing diversity. This is especially the case in research teams, which bring together individuals from various disciplines and specialties, at different stages in their careers, and often from different institutions as well. Also, in the world of science, most scientific teams are composed of men and women of different races, ages, nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. If we consider that a research team has to function collaboratively with the aim of addressing or solving a research question or problem, the challenge of forming a cohesive team with such diverse participants can seem rather daunting. At the same time, when managed well, that same diversity is a powerful resource for a team because the very reason for forming the team is to bring together a multiplicity of perspectives on a problem.17–20
The first step in taking advantage of diversity is to identify people interested in working as part of an interdisciplinary collective. It is important to recognize that collaborating is not for everyone. When starting a collaboration or forming a research team, it is important to assess people’s capacities for collaborative work in addition to their technical abilities and scientific pedigrees. This can be done both through carefully designed interview questions and reference checks. Selecting team members is more than a matter of picking people with the right attitudes and basic skills for working with others. Factors such as commitment, willingness to share data, and their own self-awareness about how they would likely fare in a team environment are also important considerations.
A well put-together team is one in which there is some synchronicity between the overall goals of the team and the aspirations and career needs of the individual members. “What’s in it for me?” is a perfectly reasonable question for a prospective team member to ask even of a tremendously exciting research venture. Of course, we must be mindful of the fact that collaborations are composed of people at very different stages of their careers and that even the question “what’s in it for me” means very different things depending on where one is in one’s professional development and their career aspirations.21
Teams that can support the professional development of individual members while working on a significant scientific problem obviously provide great incentives for team members to contribute to effective team functioning. This is in the very nature of interdependence—a situation in which participants cannot achieve their individual goals on their own and where by working together they have a greater chance of achieving their goals than were they to proceed individually.
Not surprisingly, there are also some challenges. The more established one is in his or her career path the more working collaboratively may be seen as a natural extension of one’s scientific work and career. In contrast, many early in their careers perceive participating in interdisciplinary work as risky.22 For graduate students, postdocs, and junior investigators, as they move to the point of needing to establish themselves as a leader in the field and becoming responsible for shifting paradigms within a framework that is inherently based on the individual, trusting that the system will recognize their individual accomplishments as part of a highly integrated interdisciplinary team may seem risky. Review criteria for the evaluation of investigators participating in team science need to be robust and clearly articulate the requirements for a positive evaluation such that multiple leaders working together in a highly integrated approach where status and power are shared can be appropriately recognized and rewarded.23
CREATING A SHARED VISION
Once the team leader has assembled his or her team, it is critical to engage the group in a discussion about the overall mission of the research project. Certainly, the team leader starts with a vision, which can be self-generated, emerge from a group discussion, or result from a request by someone higher in the organization or a funder. The leader uses the articulation of the vision to recruit members to the team and, after its formation, engages the participants in further defining and outlining what we call the shared vision. The members of a team play an active role in developing a research agenda with a common sense of the overarching project goals and associated objectives. The group establishes a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the different team members and helps determine how the various resources and activities will be coordinated to achieve the goals and how the individual pieces fit together to create the larger whole.
Every team member must have some idea of the “big picture” and understand how his or her work fits into and contributes to the overall effort. We do not mean to suggest that everyone must see the end goal in exactly the same way. In fact, the various team participants will reflect their individual role in the team, the role of the organizational unit within which they are working, and a host of idiosyncratic factors onto their perspective of the desired outcome.
One of the hallmarks of an effective team leader is being able to articulate the scientific project vision to the research community and the home institution, as well as artfully nurturing individual member perspectives. The leader conveys the vision in a way that allows each of the members to recognize his or her contributions. This promotion and self-advocacy helps clarify the team’s overall direction, which is based on the team member’s individual responsibilities, and catalyzes the focused energy required to accomplish the team’s objectives.24
Vision statements and team objectives are dynamic and will change over time. In fact, they need to be regularly revisited and reevaluated. When surprises or unanticipated findings occur that put into question the current direction, meeting as a group to assess the current state of knowledge, plan next steps, and readjust the vision contribute greatly to the progress in supporting the goal. Continuing to engage the group in the discussions surrounding the direction of the research project and the logical next steps and how to address challenges or barriers assures that the strengths of all team members are used to their fullest.
SHARING RECOGNITION AND CREDIT
We strongly encourage collaborators to spell out the agreed-upon criteria for authorship on abstracts and articles, authorship order, how decisions are made about who gives talks, appears on TV, or gives radio interviews, who will respond to media inquiries, and how intellectual property and patent applications will be handled.25 Formally articulating how recognition and credit will be shared among members of an integrated research team takes some forethought, planning, and agreement. Doing this at an early stage of the collaborative work can save many hours or even days of arguments and discontent should a disagreement about sharing credit emerge later with the creation of a product such as a journal article or an opportunity to present findings at a meeting. It is especially important for the team to discuss how they will promote the careers of junior colleagues and investigators, recognizing that in the context of the team research project, their scientific growth and development depends heavily on opportunities to take appropriate credit and receive proper recognition for their contributions.21,22
In addition, at the outset of a team effort, members should agree on the steps that will be taken should a disagreement or conflict develop that could not be resolved by direct communication between disputing parties. This might mean bringing in an outside mediator to help resolve disputes when discussion/negotiation among team members or PIs fails to result in agreement. Or it could mean creating a “governance committee” that has final decision making authority when the collaborators are unable to agree. Whatever process is decided on, it is always much easier to design a mechanism for resolving conflict before a specific one has developed than it will be after it erupts. As you can easily imagine, the role of trust in these activities is absolutely critical.
COMMUNICATING ABOUT THE SCIENCE: PROMOTING DISAGREEMENT WHILE CONTAINING CONFLICT
A major goal of any collaborative effort is to create a safe environment for the discussion of hot button and controversial scientific issues. Trust, as discussed previously, provides a critical foundation for having open and honest discussions about the science without the risk of team members interpreting challenges or hard questions as personal attacks. Highly interactive and integrated team participants will have disagreements; this is actually something that should be nurtured in the context of highly productive exchanges. The goal is not for everyone to agree or to avoid conflict altogether. The goal is to support the scientific disagreement while containing the personal conflict.26
There are numerous benefits to engaging in disagreements, continuing the dialogue, and working the issues through with valued collaborators. Among them are new and stronger relationships being built within the group, keeping problems or issues from accumulating, preventing resentment from growing over time, continued reevaluation of the group dynamic and the rules to be followed, strengthened trust, and emergence of new creative solutions to pesky problems.
Miscommunications and conflict will occur in groups; however, the impact can be greatly minimized through both anticipation of and knowledge about how to manage them. As mentioned earlier, it is tremendously valuable not only to understand the different ways individuals react to conflict but also to understand our own individual styles. This is especially true when people are in stressful situations because they will often quickly move to the interactive style that is most comfortable for them.
The 5 conflict-handling styles presented and discussed in the Thomas-Kilmann instrument mentioned earlier include avoiding, accommodating, competing, compromising, and collaborating. Each style is perfectly appropriate in some situations and not at all effective in others. As a leader or participant in a team science or collaborative project, having the skill to select the style and behavior appropriate for the given situation can take work. Learning how to use this conflict management “toolkit” can provide a great return on the time required to master the task. A companion article in this series by Zucker clearly articulates a strategy that can be used to successfully manage conflict situations.27
The only people more foolish than 2 people falling in love are scientists starting collaboration. When passionate about an exciting scientific idea, scientists often neglect to think realistically about the multiple tasks that will need to be accomplished to construct an effectively functioning scientific team. All too often, collaborative relationships are derailed by conflicts that emerge because potential tensions, differences, and difficulties were not identified or discussed at the outset of the collaboration. A collaborative research agreement can pull together many elements discussed in this article into an overall agreement for how the various collaborators will work together. It will clearly set expectations, outline roles and responsibilities, provide contingencies should conflict arise, and state authorship criteria (Table 2).
Yet, our suggestion of establishing collaborative agreements has met with much resistance, especially when it is viewed as something that will take valuable time away from the scientific effort. However, it has been our experience that spending a small amount of time discussing these elements at the start of a collaborative arrangement will greatly diminish the chance of spending vast amounts of time later trying to untangle heated discussions and hostile conflict situations when things go wrong, which sadly often happens. Even a short e-mail after a discussion recounting, summarizing, and reinforcing a face-to-face conversation can serve this purpose quite well, and multiple such correspondences can be combined to generate a mutual agreement for the work together.
Creating an environment in which respectful disagreement can occur, productive discussion around difference is fostered, and all the while conflict and negative emotion is contained can lead to enhanced shared learning and focus everyone’s efforts on the scientific project at hand.
COMMUNICATING WITH EACH OTHER
Scientists can become impatient when we start talking about things like team dynamics and trust. A typical reaction would include their saying that these things are either obvious or very difficult to get one’s hands around. Not surprisingly, scientists would rather be doing science than concerning themselves with discussions about how they are all getting along.28
Table 3 lists several suggestions for strengthening team dynamics. Although the final suggestion of scheduling periodic assessments and feedback often elicits resistance, it can be very helpful to team functioning. People who work together can be reluctant to “rock the boat” by bringing up problems or discontent. Such reluctance is often an indicator of a potentially serious problem that is better attended to early rather than sitting on it in the hopes that it will go away. Interestingly, once a team gets into the habit of conducting regular assessment and feedback sessions, these become much easier to conduct and their value becomes apparent. For those reluctant even to use the terms “assessment” or “evaluation,” even establishing a routine as simple as “checking-in” with one’s colleagues at the beginning and end of a meeting can be helpful. One could just ask each person at the meeting, “Are there any problems or concerns that need to be attended to?”
ENJOYING THE SCIENCE
All you have to do to find out what makes a scientist tick is to ask if he or she would be willing to tell you about their research projects. When we started to learn more about what makes collaborative research teams successful, we quickly found that it is not dissimilar from multiplying that individual enthusiasm by 2 or 3 or more. For many scientists, being able to share the excitement of the research process and discovery, especially with others for whom it is also exciting, is extremely rewarding.
Several leading thinkers have reflected on the joy they encountered in their collaborations. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, described the satisfaction and enjoyment he experienced in his collaboration with psychologist Amos Tversky this way: “[W]e met in Jerusalem to look at the results and write a paper. The experience was magical. I had enjoyed collaborative work before, but this was different. Amos was often described by people who knew him as the smartest person they knew. He was also very funny, with an endless supply of jokes appropriate to every nuance of a situation. In his presence, I became funny as well, and the result was that we could spend hours of solid work in continuous mirth . . . [A]nd we were not just having fun. I quickly discovered that Amos had a remedy for everything I found difficult about writing. With him movement was always forward . . . [A]s we were writing our first paper, I was conscious of how much better it was than the more hesitant piece I would have written by myself.”29,30
We have heard from many researchers that a good collaboration provides many benefits beyond strengthening the actual science. They cite many intangible elements, such as complementarity of work styles and approaches, improved quality of the experimental design or analysis of the results, and strong personal connections to colleagues, which are not merely supportive but also deeply enjoyable and satisfying. There are not many things more satisfying than doing what you truly love, sharing that passion, and working closely with others who are pursuing the same goals.
Case in Point
The discussion case presented in the introduction to this and the 2 companion articles21,27 is used here to illustrate how an approach can be developed that takes the principles presented in this article and puts them into practice. Through group meetings buttressed by e-mail exchanges, the team can begin to establish the trust necessary to get them through the storming phase and eventually to the level of performing as a highly integrated research team.
Drs. Ally and Chase will need to have a conversation to decide how the team will be led. A major question is whether there will be a primary leader or co-leads. Dr. Ally, aware that since being tenured she is frequently on travel, may be receptive to a co-leader approach where she and Dr. Chase work closely to share leadership for the effort. This will require frequent one-on-one discussions between Drs. Ally and Chase in addition to those with the larger group. The next step is to decide on the overall goal of the project and the associated objectives that will contribute to achieving that goal. Once the goal is more clearly defined, Drs. Bond and Day can be brought into the discussions. This will set the stage for the inclusion of their laboratory personnel who will also be working on the joint project. Group meetings focused on the project goals will benefit from broad input because it provides opportunities to capture elements that might have been overlooked and it help creates an atmosphere where people begin to trust one another, perceive their contributions are valued, can share their strengths, and learn from the others.
After the objectives have been identified, it is critical to have conversations about roles and responsibilities as well as expectations. Given the details of the case discussion, and the concerns Dr. Chase has about working with Dr. Ally, it will be important for them to delineate clearly which decisions each has the final say on. Typically, these will be matters dependent on their individual areas of scientific expertise. In addition, identifying the team members who will be involved in achieving each of the objectives (making sure everyone understands their roles and those of others) and who to go to for clarification, help, or more information contributes to strong team functioning.
It is critical for the key leaders to agree upon meeting schedules and discuss how meetings will be handled if someone is absent or traveling. Who will lead the weekly meeting? Does the meeting go on if Dr. Ally is traveling? How will they keep everyone up-to-date on what happened at the meeting? Developing standard agreed-upon procedures for how reagents are made and shared, data are shared, and problems are addressed, and whether they are solved helps create the calculus- based trust critical for early stages of team development.
The 4 doctors need to have an open and honest discussion about authorship. Spending time agreeing on the criteria for the various authorship positions on abstracts or articles will prevent disputes and keep people from making assumptions. In addition, they should develop a clear process for reviewing drafts and an understanding about the approval process before any submissions. It is also helpful to discuss who the spokespeople will be should the media call after an exiting result is published. Slowly turning the agreements made during meetings or through e-mail exchanges into written form provides another tool for starting to build strong trust among team members and more importantly provides a document that can be revisited, revised, and restructured as needed over the course of the collaboration.
Finally, if the team gets through the storming and norming phases and truly hits their stride in working together, trust will have formed and the group should consider ways of acknowledging their enjoyment in working together whether it is celebrating an accomplishment, going for lunch, or some other activity.
There are many factors that come together and contribute to successful collaborations. Just as there is no one formula for successful leadership, there is no one formula for establishing an effective team. Some of the characteristics we have noted in effective team functioning include internal cohesion, productivity, the ability to communicate openly and learn each others languages, setting shared expectations, defining roles and responsibilities, and challenging each other without it becoming personal.
Trust is among the most critical elements we have encountered, which influence team cohesion in our research and practice. While a group can come together and work on a joint project without having established trust, it is very difficult for a team to continue working together toward a common goal without establishing it. Other essential elements include creating a strong vision, sharing recognition and credit, handling conflict, building the team, and, of course, having fun. Communication is extremely important and not surprisingly cuts across all these aspects. There are many aspects to communication that are important to recognize extending from simple logistics of how to communicate, which cannot be understated, to talking about the science as well as establishing, strengthening, and maintaining team dynamics.
Team participants can play key roles in collaborative efforts. They often provide critical support and can even fill gaps in the skill set of the leader, reinforcing the value of self-awareness, both on the part of the leader as well as the participants. If a leader knows he or she can clearly articulate the overall vision and direction, yet has difficulty clearly setting expectations and providing details for team members to follow, he or she can find someone to join the team who can take a lead role in assuring these critical elements are managed well.
From our perspective, the most important focus for highly integrated and interactive teams is to spend their time fully engaged in the research and the scientific process. There is no better time than now to bring together people from different disciplines and backgrounds to solve highly complex scientific problems. With a handful of strategies in each scientist’s toolkit, the focus can stay on the scientific problem at hand and the challenges can be minimized to benefit from the diverse contributions of an interdisciplinary team.
The authors thank Samantha Levine-Finley, Associate Ombudsman at the National Institutes of Health, for her contributions to the effort to capture the critical elements that must come together for successful team functioning.
Copyright © 2012 by the American Federation for Medical Research.