Learning from Google about inter- and transdisciplinary leadership

By Janet G. Hering

Janet G. Hering (biography)

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:

  1. 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;
  2. They must have the integrative capacity to bring together both people and concepts from different sectors; and,
  3. 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.

9 thoughts on “Learning from Google about inter- and transdisciplinary leadership”

  1. I like this list of 3 leadership capacities a lot. I get push back from others, though, who say that “intellectual capacity to grasp the key results from the contributing projects” in practice requires deep subject matter expertise. I don’t think that is true, but I do think we need to explain why it’s not true. What thought processes exactly are involved in “grasping the key results…”?

    • Hi Bethany, In a project that involves multiple disciplines, I think it is simply impossible to expect any individual to have “deep subject matter expertise” in all of them. I think that, in academia, there is an unhealthy obsession with the principal investigator, which leads to unrealistic expectations and a lack of appreciation for what co-investigators and other team members are contributing. The capacity of the project leader(s) to grasp the key results depends a lot on the capacity of the other team members to communicate them. Certainly the project leader(s) should bring in some kind of expertise that is relevant to the project, but expecting comprehensive expertise is not realistic.

  2. I have yet to read Lazlo Bock’s book, though now I suppose I must. Bock comes from a technology environment where money flows like tap water and the typical management process is to ‘throw it against the wall and see if it sticks,’ selecting the one that stuck and produces the largest revenue stream. I have before and will continue to caution against embracing views and processes invoked by populist authors simply because they made the NY Times bestseller list, a dubious distinction at best. I am wary of ‘leaders/managers/pseudo scholars’ who must have constant aggrandizement in order to maintain their interest. Need I mention the ‘Manhattan Project’ as a spectacular intellectual achievement led by a narcissist who charged ahead even while being warned by scholars on his ‘team.’ Academic scholars will either manage their fate or be consumed by populism. The corporatized university has already headed down that path.

    • It got your attention, though, didn’t it. To be serious, I don’t think we should value insights more highly because they come from industry (which is certainly a fad in academic circles). At the same time, we shouldn’t discount insights just because they come from industry and/or made a best-seller list. Google is probably one of the more interesting companies to track in this regard because they collect and analyze an enormous amount of data.

      • Agreed, you’re absolutely correct. It did rekindle interest in the subject of corporate or government collaboration with academia. My alarm goes off when Google is discussed in any context of data because of their ‘seeming’ willingness to roll over for the government when asked for data. I don’t want to be unfair, but Google is a major media and internet player and could be a force in protecting intellectual property rights. Yet instead they ‘seem’ to be a collaborator with the government, bringing into question their integrity. Google and Facebook exhibit a privileged ideology where they partner with government to decide what should be private, rather than taking more of an Apple approach that says the individual who owns the data decides. Bock is a business exec, apparently a successful one, but not one whom I put much confidence in telling academicians how to do research.

  3. Dear Joseph, Thanks for the interesting questions. I think that communication and mutual respect within the leadership team would be absolutely crucial. In this, we might be able to learn from practices in job sharing applied to senior leadership positions in business.

    Even though I wrote the blog piece, my co-author Sabine Hoffmann (Eawag) has the most relevant real-world experience and also a better theoretical underpinning than I do myself. I’m sure she would be interested to exchange ideas on this with you bilaterally. You can find her at: http://www.eawag.ch/en/.

  4. I like the view of leaders as integrators.
    The suggestion that a leadership team might be more effective is intriguing. Do you have an opinion about how skills and responsibilities might be distributed in this case?
    Intellectual and integrative capacity seem to be inseparable, but management can be to some extent delegated?
    Preliminary integration might help divide up areas of responsibility for further integration?
    Communication within the leadership team probably introduces some risk and overhead too?


Leave a Reply to Janet HeringCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: