What can interdisciplinary collaborations learn from the science of team science?

Suzi Spitzer (biography)

By Suzi Spitzer

How can we improve interdisciplinary collaborations? There are many lessons to be learned from the Science of Team Science. The following ten lessons summarize many of the ideas that were shared at the International Science of Team Science Conference in Galveston, Texas, in May 2018.

1. Team up with the right people
On the most basic level, scientists working on teams should be willing to integrate their thoughts with their teammates’ ideas. Participants should also possess a variety of social skills, such as negotiation and social perceptiveness. The most successful teams also encompass a moderate degree of deep-level diversity (values, perspectives, cognitive styles) and include women in leadership roles.

2. Start off on the right note
Take some time before beginning a team task or project to make sure everyone is on the same page. Consider using checklists to ensure that an activity starts (and ends) successfully. For new science teams, a basic checklist could make sure that everyone knows 1) each other, 2) the details of the project, and 3) their role on the team.

3. Practice self-awareness as a leader
You don’t need to be good at all aspects of leadership, but it is important for everyone on a team to understand their own leadership style. Be transparent with others and yourself about where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and surround yourself with teammates who excel in areas you do not.

4. Employ different styles of collaboration to balance efficiency and integration
Sports can help us conceptualize different forms of collaboration. Pooled collaboration involves teammates simultaneously, but separately, contributing to a team task (gymnastics). Sequential collaboration involves a specified order of contribution, where one person’s output becomes the next person’s input, until the team completes the task (football). Reciprocal collaboration involves teammates contributing and communicating back and forth to complete a task (basketball). Science teams should adopt whichever collaborative structure is most appropriate for their project.

5. Go beyond avoiding jargon to develop a shared understanding
Interdisciplinary translation is a process that promotes understanding between scientists who speak different “disciplinary languages.” When working on a team of scientists with different epistemological backgrounds, always bear in mind that each teammate possesses their own “thought world,” or set of perspectives and experiences. When working on interdisciplinary teams, of course scientists must clarify disciplinary terms that others might not know, but less obviously, scientists must also make sure that their shared words have shared meaning (eg., culture, diversity, bias, objective).

6. Use visualizations as translation tools
Science teams can create and discuss interactive visuals to facilitate analytical thinking, knowledge integration, and data exploration. Visualizations, such as conceptual diagrams, can function as boundary objects between teammates who possess different perspectives or expertise. A visualization can also serve as a “great equalizer” because teams can use it to collapse hierarchies and layer information in a way that creates a more egalitarian structure where all ideas are represented.

7. Do not avoid conflict—it’s inevitable… and it can be healthy!
Learn how to express and resolve conflicts effectively. Be specific about the subject of the disagreement and your position on the matter, and express conflict directly to the antagonist, rather than through a third party. Avoid high-intensity behaviors that are offensive (eg., undermining) or defensive, (eg., stonewalling). Healthy debate can actually energize a team because it can be encouraging to collaboratively move towards a solution.

8. Share knowledge and advice
Effective teams have more communication and more equal communication. Social network analyses of successful teams show teammates learning from each other and forming close relationships with several other teammates (high network density and centrality). Avoid the “star model,” which signifies an underlying cultural understanding that there is one lone genius leading the team. This top-down model causes teams to miss out on valuable questioning and input flowing from the bottom. Instead, develop collective cognitive responsibility, where success of the group effort is distributed among members and not concentrated in a single leader.

9. Build in “alone time” to maximize team creativity
The most creative team ideas often do not emerge within a single meeting. Ideation in team science should be longitudinal, and oscillate between convergent and divergent stages. Teammates should have time to converge and deliberate and generate transformative ideas as a group, and then also have an opportunity to reflect on the ideas and let them marinate before the team reconvenes. The interplay of these opportunities discourages teams from settling on “mean (average) ideas” that represent a snapshot agreement, and instead makes ideas and teams stronger and more creative.

10. Think about collaboration as a scientific virtue
Teamwork makes the dream work, but it is not always easy. When the going gets tough, remind yourself that collaboration makes you flourish as a scientist. Think about collaboration as virtuous “scientific friendship.” Virtuous friendship does not stem from utility (they have something we need) or pleasure (we like them), but instead from a drive to be a good person and support others’ greater achievements. Team scientists have an “interest in ‘science-ing’ with others because it contributes to science excellence” and should pride themselves on their determination to “work with other scientists because it makes everyone’s science more awesome.”

Do you have other lessons to share? Are there lessons that you disagree with?

The ideas in this blog post represent a synthesis of the presentations and discussions throughout the duration of the conference, and, in particular, draw from the work of the following individuals: Anita Williams Woolley, James Sallis, Kevin Wooten, Laurie Weingart, Andi Hess, Suresh Bhavnani, Jennifer Cross, Hannah Love, Marshall Poole, Samuel Wilson, and Stephen Crowley.

This blog post is based on a longer version published on the website of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Integration and Application Network (http://ian.umces.edu/blog/2018/05/31/how-to-improve-interdisciplinary-collaborations-lessons-learned-from-scientists-studying-team-science/).

Biography: Suzi Spitzer is a PhD student in the Marine Estuarine Environmental Sciences Graduate Program at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, USA. She works as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Integration & Application Network (IAN) studying science communication and citizen science. She is researching how effective community engagement and science communication can facilitate collaborative learning between scientists and the public within the context of citizen science.

10 thoughts on “What can interdisciplinary collaborations learn from the science of team science?”

  1. Hello Suzi, thanks a lot for your blog post.

    Some of the points immediately made me say “Yes, I’ve experienced that as well before”, either during my previous studies or now during my work as a PhD in the research group “Processes of Sustainability Transformation”, especially your point seven about conflict.

    As is natural in group work, tensions arise during the process, but are barely managed. Luckily two of my colleagues suggested a joint session using “nonviolent communication”. Expressing ourselves by structuring our dialogue along *observations, feelings, needs and requests* really helped us resolve some of the tensions that have built up.

    I was wondering, if you (or others reading this) have experience with other methods or tools for dealing with such tensions? Or have you been in a situation where such tensions have led to a (positively) surprising outcome you didn’t expect?

    I would be really interested to hear about them.

    Best, Stefan

    • Hi Stefan, and thanks for the comment. The first response that came to mind is not actually a personal experience, but something that a friend told me about. She said that her workplace has had a lot of success using a system called “Safe Space” by Rudy Miick. Here’s some information on his approach: http://success.miick.com/blog/topic/safe-space

  2. Hi Suzi,
    I really want to thank you for compiling this fantastic summary. It’s great to be able to look back and pull out key lessons, and you’ve included a very useful set of reminders from the conference. I have a feeling I’m going to end up frequently using this post as a starting point for further conversations. Thanks for doing this!


  3. Thanks for this post Suzi.

    Three points stand out for me: 1. The importance of encouraging and developing women to take active roles within collaborative initiatives. This does make a positive difference, as shown here: http://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.com/2018/01/evidence-that-women-enhance-collective.html 2. the importance of creating collaborative webs rather than relying on stars: Doing this really does ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of collaborations. I explore this here: http://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.com/2016/02/create-webs-not-stars.html

    Thirdly, I think the football analogy (and I am thinking soccer here, but I think it applies to American football as well) could be described differently. It is true that there is only one player “on the ball” at any one moment, but the other players on the field (if they are truly team players) will be doing lots of work “off the ball”: making runs to empty space, making themselves available for a pass or throw, drawing opposition players away from their team mate on the ball, positioning themselves in defensive positions to counter potential threats, even (and I am not advocating this by the way) committing fouls off the ball for the greater good of the team!

    Much of these “off the ball” contributions are often unseen and sometimes unappreciated. Over time, this lack of acknowledgement will adversely effect team spirit and collaborative effectiveness: repeatedly making the effort to contribute without any apparent recognition or reward can destroy the soul of an individual and break the heart of a collaboration.

    A way of beginning to address this problem and ensure people get acknowledgement for potentially unappreciated contributions is to stop playing “Collaborative (or Partnership) Bingo”. I explore this here: http://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.com/2014/04/dont-play-partnership-bingo.html

    Thanks again for your post!


    • Thanks for all the interesting links, Charles! I love your more in-depth analysis of the sports metaphor. I thought this metaphor was pretty clever when it was briefly discussed at the conference, and your spin on it makes it even more impactful! What happens in the background “off the ball” in collaborations is super important and should be acknowledged and celebrated more often.

  4. I agree this is a great synthesis of the lessons from the conference. It is interesting to see the synergies among the various presentations. I think this is why the Science of Team Science is gelling as an interdisciplinary endeavor. There is clear evidence of synergy in your summary.

    • Thank you, Scott! It was very interesting (and challenging!) to try to synthesize all of the rich material that I picked up at the conference, especially as a first-time attendee! The presentations were informative and diverse!

  5. This is a wonderful synthesis of many of the elements that must come together for a successful team. We discuss some of these things often and others – maybe not so much. I have been particularly struck over the last months by the incredible impact self-awareness has on an individual’s ability to lead. As a leader gets to know him/herself better and better, a happy side-effect is increased other-awareness. It is great to see awareness featured here and I would add that other-awareness is just as important and will grow/expand too. For a leader to initiate an effort and be focused on the task at hand is a great first step. The leader’s ability to gain skill in tending to relationships will further contribute to a positive team dynamic and the goals of the team

    • Michelle, thanks for your kind comment. I love your addition- effective leaders are both self-aware AND aware of their teammates’ strengths, weaknesses, motivations, personalities, etc.


Leave a Reply

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

%d bloggers like this: