By Janet G. Hering
Like most engineers, the Google leadership had assumed that the leader of an engineering team must be at least as competent technically as the members of the team. As Laszlo Bock described in his 2015 book Work Rules!, however, a data-driven assessment disproved this assumption. The counter-intuitive result of “Project Oxygen” was that having “important technical skills that help advise the team” only ranked number eight in the list of key attributes differentiating the most from the least effective managers.
This is very good news for leaders of inter- and transdisciplinary synthesis projects since it’s highly unlikely that these leaders could have all the subject expertise relevant to their projects. If subject expertise is not the most important characteristic of leadership, then what kind of expertise should leaders have and what kind of roles do they play? How important are leaders and leadership in such synthesis projects?
Leaders perform a critical function and play multiple roles
Sabine Hoffmann, Christian Pohl and I studied knowledge integration in the context of four synthesis projects conducted as part of the Swiss National Research Programme “Sustainable Water Management” (NRP 61). We found that integration by a leader was the predominant procedure used in synthesis. Leaders took on roles as:
- Collaborators interacting closely with actors who formed the target audience for research results;
- Facilitators supporting knowledge exchange among various scientific and societal actors;
- Scholars maintaining distance from the field of study and analyzing it academically, and bringing their own expertise to bear on the projects; and,
- Advocates trying actively to bring about social change.
Not all roles were performed in all projects. In particular, only one synthesis project leader took on the contentious role of advocate.
Three key leadership skills
Reflection by the synthesis project leaders, in combination with surveys of project participants, allowed the identification of key attributes of successful leaders.
Three essential types of capacities were identified:
- Team leaders need to have the intellectual capacity to grasp the key results from contributing projects that are integrated in the synthesis project and to position those results in the context of current research in the field;
- They must have the integrative capacity to bring together both people and concepts from different sectors; and,
- They must have the management capacity to work effectively with diverse project participants and especially to communicate and promote intellectual exchange.
Another essential element is having the time available for leadership responsibilities and being willing to commit that time to the project. The intensive time demands of leading a synthesis project coupled with the broad range of required capacities suggest that a leadership team may be more effective than a single individual in this role.
We can learn from Google that team leaders make an important contribution to the performance of their teams. We can learn from our study of knowledge integration in sustainable water management that leaders take on multiple roles and exercise different capacities to contribute to the success of inter- and transdisciplinary synthesis projects. This requires the dedication of significant time and effort by leaders, which should be recognized and supported.
Bock, L. (2015). Work Rules! John Murray: London, United Kingdom.
To find out more:
Hoffmann, S, Pohl, C. and Hering J. G. (2017). Methods and procedures of transdisciplinary knowledge integration: Empirical insights from four thematic synthesis processes. Ecology and Society, 22, 1: 27. Online: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol22/iss1/art27/
Hoffmann, S, Pohl, C. and Hering J. G. (2017). Exploring transdisciplinary integration within a large research program: Empirical lessons from four thematic synthesis processes. Research Policy, 46, 3: 678-692. Online: 10.1016/j.respol.2017.01.004
Biography: Janet Hering is a Professor in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and in the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering at ETH Lausanne. As the Director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), she interacts with stakeholders from policy and practice. She is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.