Teamwork Tips: Making Working Together Work

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With interdisciplinary work becoming more common, the ability to work well in a team is a valuable skill. According to the National Cancer Institute’s Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide, “Increased specialization of research expertise and methods has made interdependence, joint ownership, and collective responsibility between and among scientists near requirements.”

While understanding how to communicate across disciplines can be a challenge, the innovative solutions those collaborations allow are in ever-increasing demand. So, how does a researcher ensure they’re interacting effectively within a team? The answers lie in the field of “team science,” described by the NCI as “a collaborative and cross-disciplinary approach to scientific inquiry that draws researchers, who otherwise would work independently or as co-investigators on smaller-scale projects, into collaborative centers and groups.”

Collaboration vs. Integration

The NCI makes a distinction between team science that relies on collaboration versus integration. Collaboration is when each team member applies their expertise to a separate part of the problem, with minimal data sharing or discussion, and connects everything at the end. In contrast, integrated research is when team members apply their expertise to collective discussions of team goals, individual objectives, and future plans. This often generates new ideas or side projects, with leadership, data, and credit shared among the team.

Finding Common Ground

When embarking on an interdisciplinary project, there are some general team science guidelines to keep in mind. First, working in teams means navigating the different mindsets and circumstances of each member. To promote positive interactions, be mindful that other disciplines use different approaches, tools, and words. 

“One of the main challenges we faced was the fact that the other people on the team had never worked in flood-risk before,” says Dr. David Johnson. Dr. Johnson was principal investigator for flood risk mitigation, one of four interdisciplinary projects from Purdue Policy Research Institute’s (PPRI) Breaking Through, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2016-2019. The other initiatives were big data ethics, agricultural sustainability, and climate tipping points. “This was a totally new application for them, so understanding the language and terminology was difficult. You have to learn how each team member’s expertise contributes to the bigger picture.” 

Defining each team member’s role can be difficult initially, but ultimately it allows the team to create worthwhile research with real-world impacts.

“Our project required a lot of different expertise and folks coming together. Working with undergrads and professors from different disciplines was exciting and allowed us to create something participants found valuable,” says Dr. Manjana Milkoreit, principal investigator on PPRI’s climate tipping points. “However, you need to approach it with a keen awareness of the languages, experiences, and backgrounds that pull people in different directions.” 

Communication is Key

Those differences may take time to understand, but a big part of team science is recognizing that having multiple perspectives encourages creative problem-solving and innovation. Don’t assume everyone knows what you know. Instead, speak clearly and ask clarifying questions to create an equal foundation of knowledge for all members. Being clear about roles and responsibilities will streamline the process for efficient coordination. In addition, committing to open communication and data sharing will further improve team dynamics. 

“We had very open communication,” says Dr. Chris Clifton, principal investigator for PPRI’s big data ethics project. “If someone had an idea they wanted to pursue, they shared with the group and we said go ahead, sounds good to us. Trusting each other and communicating openly made the project work.” 

Navigating Conflict

While the initial vision for the project may be shared by the whole team, each member may have their own goals for the end result.

“One challenge was understanding what we each need to get out of the project to further our own research goals,” says Dr. Clifton. “Asking what I want to learn out of this, what I need to make research accomplishments in my discipline—It was something I hadn’t expected. We’re so engrained in the way we do things that we don’t expect there to be differences.”

Managing these varied goals is especially important when planning publications.

“Sharing findings is inherently a challenge with interdisciplinary teams,” says Dr. Brett Crawford, co-investigator on PPRI’s climate tipping points project. “We want to publish in our journals, but we speak different languages and have different expectations. It’s something to continue working through as you develop papers.”

To avoid conflict down the road, decide on guidelines for authorship and credit attribution early on, including how to account for each member’s current stage of career development.

“For interdisciplinary work, set your expectations appropriately. Understand going in that the way you measure success needs to be different and you may not be able to predict it in advance,” says Dr. Clifton.

Conflict can hinder a team’s success, but it can also encourage discussion and creativity depending on how it’s handled. Thoughtful listening, fair treatment, and proactive guidelines for conflict resolution will create a respectful atmosphere for new ideas and diverse opinions.

Bottom Line

Both the end product and the timeline of interdisciplinary work may differ from traditional academia. The timeline will most likely be longer, encouraging engagement with the community and relevant stakeholders, but perhaps accruing fewer tangible assets along the way. While in the planning stages, discover what each team member’s goals are, and how they can be recognized within the project. Because of the longer trajectory of most interdisciplinary work, check in with the team regularly to review progress, concerns, or next steps. Communicating openly and frequently will streamline team dynamics and help ensure a successful project for everyone involved.

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