Leading large transdisciplinary projects

By Sanford D. Eigenbrode, Lois Wright Morton, and Timothy Martin

Sanford D. Eigenbrode (biography)

What’s required to lead exceptionally large projects involving many dozens of participants from various scientific disciplines (including biophysical, social, and economic), multiple stakeholders, and efforts spanning a gamut from discovery to implementation? Such projects are common when investigating social-ecological systems which are inherently complex and large in spatial and temporal scales. Problems are commonly multifaceted, with incomplete or apparently contradictory knowledge, stakeholders with divergent positions, and large economic or social consequences.

Leaders of such very large projects confront unique challenges in addition to those inherent to directing interdisciplinary efforts:

Lois Wright Morton (biography)
  1. the sheer number of participants, interactions, activities, and interrelated objectives requires efficient and well thought out management structures and procedures
  2. the types of collaborations required simultaneously within the project can be diverse, including those that might be considered disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, and they entail interactions that change throughout the project life cycle. This requires the capacity to understand the different disciplines well enough to guide their integration as the project matures
  3. directors of such projects are the liaison with stakeholders, policymakers, the general public, donors, institutions and the media.
Timothy Martin (biography)

Much of the literature on team science emphasizes principles over the day-to-day operations, and does not directly address issues that come with larger scale projects. Rather, the nature of these challenges, and approaches to addressing them, are often discovered “in the saddle” by project directors. A pragmatic guide is needed. To this end, a group of successful directors of large socio-environmental-systems-focused projects participated in a workshop hosted by SESYNC (the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in the USA) and produced a practical guide (Eigenbrode et al., 2017). To provide a taste of the issues covered, we share our conclusions about the personal attributes of a successful director, which are detailed in Section 1 of the guide.

Qualities and skills of a high-functioning director

The director must own and nurture a shared vision for the project within the project team. This requires building and coalescing disparate members that bring a variety of strengths and perspectives to the project. In addition, to effectively bring stakeholders into the team effort, the director will need to continually communicate the project vision to outside parties who have a variety of interests and agendas.

Three primary areas require consideration: career status, qualities and skills.

Career status involves:

  • sufficient seniority in your organization, ie., being fully established in your career
  • an established network of colleagues to provide the basis for building a highly functioning team
  • “broad shoulders”, ie., the ability to take on large and diverse responsibilities across the breadth of the project.

Qualities involves the ability to:

  • Earn the respect of team members of varying professional levels, disciplines, backgrounds, interests
  • Work with transparency towards your actions and knowledge
  • Be flexible in your ideas and methods
  • Find humor in your mistakes
  • Have thick skin to withstand the criticism of others
  • Be unflappable by a continual set of hurdles that are put in your path
  • Accept successes and praise with humility.

Skills are required in four areas:

  1. Leadership – there are many forms and styles that will work as long as they bring out the best in others to develop an effective collaborative and interdisciplinary project
  2. Knowledge – about the project as a whole, which requires interest in the general goals and objectives of the project and expanding your knowledge within and outside your own discipline
  3. Attitude – that respects the role and contributions of every member, regardless of discipline and academic levels (staff, students, peers, adjuncts, etc), as well as the value of non-academic stakeholders and collaborators
  4. Communication – fostering internal team communications and externally represent the project and its participants. This requires willingness to listen to the input of others and encourage diverse idea exchanges, as well as seeking opportunities to make the work of the project and team members known beyond the project.

These are summarized as a list of take-away messages in the table below.

(Source: Eigenbrode et al., 2017)

What has your experience been either in leading or working with a leader in a large transdisciplinary project? Do our suggestions gel with yours? Do you have additional or different lessons to share?

Eigenbrode, S. D., Martin, T., Morton, L. W., Colletti, J., Goodwin, P., Gustafson, R., Hawthorne, D., Johnson, A., Klein, J. T., Mercado, L., Pearl, S., Richard, T., and Wolcott, M. (2017). Leading large transdisciplinary projects addressing social-ecological systems: A primer for project directors. Online: https://nifa.usda.gov/resource/leading-transdisciplinary-projects

The primer has nine sections: Qualities and Skills of a High Functioning Director, Molding your Team, Creating a Culture of Collaboration, Enabling Participant Success, Supporting the Next Generation of Researchers, Building High Performance Teams, Designing and Managing the Project, Cultivating Partner and Stakeholder Relationships, Garnering Institutional Resources and Support.

Biography: Sanford D. Eigenbrode, Ph.D., directed “Regional Approaches to Climate Change for Pacific Northwest Agriculture” (2011-2018), a $20 million US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture sponsored transdisciplinary project that involved scientists and students from three universities and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. An entomologist whose disciplinary research focuses on agroecology and chemical ecology, he also has a strong interest in interdisciplinary communication and leadership. He was a cofounder of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative. He is University Distinguished Professor at the University of Idaho, currently on sabbatical at Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) – Europe Switzerland, that includes facilitating communication in a large CABI-led project addressing woody invasive weeds in eastern Africa.

Biography: Lois Wright Morton, Ph.D., directed the US Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture funded Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project from 2011 to 2017. This $20 million transdisciplinary project encompassed scientists and students from 11 institutions, farmer cooperators, a highly engaged advisory board, and 35 experimental research sites in the upper Midwest of the US. A rural sociologist in the Department of Sociology at Iowa State University, USA, her research includes civic structure, social connections and human dimensions of natural resource management, water quality, agricultural management and long term weather, and rural communities.

Biography: Tim Martin, Ph.D., directed the “Pine Integrated Network: Education, Mitigation and Adaptation Project”, a 5-year, $20 million climate change Coordinated Agricultural Project which was funded by US Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture to generate and disseminate science to support the sustainable management of planted southern pine in a changing climate. The project involved 50 co-principal investigators at eleven different south-eastern US land grant universities and the US Forest Service. He is a Professor of Tree Physiology at the University of Florida, where he co-directs the Forest Biology Research Cooperative, a collaborative consortium between corporate forest managers and the university.

7 thoughts on “Leading large transdisciplinary projects”

  1. Dear Mary,

    I apologize for the delay in responding to your post! These are all excellent points that I think readers of the blog will appreciate, and that compliment the content of the primer. Sections 2 – 4, 8 and 9 address most of these issues (inclusiveness, participant contributions to developing basic framework and principles, stakeholder engagement and responsibilities, working with institutions and funding agencies, authorship and intellectual property issues). The primer does not explicitly address abuse of any type, reflecting I think our expectation that such issues are typically addressed by participants’ employing institutions. At least acknowledging that those institutional policies pertain would be prudent and appropriate to include in project guidelines.

  2. I think the authors have summed up the requirements for leading large interdisciplinary projects quite well indeed. Not to be underestimated, however, is the time that a leader must devote to not just communication but also understanding where each team member’s thinking and actual progress is at in relation to project needs. The weakest of the crucial links will continually need to be given attention.
    Whilst the aim of the piece seem not to be in terms of specific methods, a leader must have more than a semblance of appreciation of the need to monitor project progress through an appropriate and inclusive evaluation framework.

  3. Great comments! Trust, collegiality, kindness, honest communication, altruism. These traits aren’t often mentioned when we talk about doing good science, but in the end they are critical human traits essential to facilitating good collaboration.

  4. I am involved in some of the most intense collaborations of my life this last couple of years. It is a process which can be filled with inspiration and energy and deep trust and intellectual stimulation. Also with ambiguity and vulnerability to allow others into your headspace, and share your own half formed thoughts, have them critiqued and rearranged. Its sometimes filled with confusion and annoyance when folks pull in many directions, anger when there is disrespect, exhaustion when there are so many different disciplinary lenses to wrap your head around.

    Its not just a process of logic, it’s also about allowing emotions to be brought to the discussion – especially with some of the difficult issues we are dealing with in climate change, and disaster mitigation.

    Somedays I feel like to really get the ideas melded, you have to trust the others enough to let them unscrew the top off your head, have a little look and rearrange the grey matter, blend it with theirs, and move along with something truly collaborative. It needs a totally different concept of leadership. When it works, it really takes you all somewhere different. I feel incredibly lucky to be embedded in some teams in my workplace at CSIRO, and with many of our external collaborators, that are learning to work this way as we co-design pathways forward.

    This Humans of New York piece really got me thinking about this, because I see so many wonderful ideas come apart at the seams when collaboration is driven by someone with passion and vision, and unable to let go of the idea or their ego. Kudos to this fella who has the self-awareness to realise what is happening, and the courage to say so (I dont know if this link will work, but if it doesnt it is the Facebook Humans of New York post 6 May 2018)


    • Thank you for your comment, Deborah, and for the reminder that directing large projects (or any projects) can be challenging and rewarding on deeply personal levels. I think an important point in this section of our primer is that there are many styles of successful leadership. Ideally, we can be aware of our personal attributes and use them to good effect as leaders while minimizing the distractions they might cause. Your comment and Mary’s, which follows, both emphasize the importance of trust. Thank you for that insight. Like the contributor to Humans of New York that you shared, finding the balance between providing vision and enforcing accountability while trusting in the emerging creativity of the team has been a challenge for me and one that we discussed in our workshop.

  5. 1) it helps if everyone knows they are actually part of a transdisciplinary project (or any project for that matter!!). 2) an agreed position on the basic framework and principles, and who the lead agency and role is, need to be clearly stated and understood by everyone BEFORE the project can proceed. 3. it also helps if everyone knows who is part of that project – who ALL the stakeholders are and what their role is. 4. it helps to get a regular report/update as to the project status – both lessons learnt and achievements gained. 5. it helps to know the lead agency and who the lead project director is. 6. it is essential to acknowledge, recognise and respect each person for their contribution AND their right to withhold or withdraw their self, knowledge and/or information related to the project if abusive behaviours and actions persist, or if that person is denied correct acknowledgement in any published material. Both my MPH and MA (Theol) academic supervisors have functioned in this way, thank God. All other experiences I’ve encountered have fallen far short of these two peoples’ integrity, so my final point would be that “trust” is at the base of it all – if lost, there’s no integrity in the project, the people, or its outcomes.


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