Collaboration and team science: Top ten take aways

By L. Michelle Bennett and Christophe Marchand

L. Michelle Bennett (biography)

What are the key lessons for building a successful collaborative team? A new version of the Collaboration and Team Science Field Guide (Bennett et al., 2018) provides ten top take aways:

It is almost impossible to imagine a successful collaboration without trust. Trust provides the foundation for a team. Trust is necessary for establishing other aspects of a successful collaboration such as psychological safety, candid conversation, a positive team dynamic, and successful conflict management.

Christophe Marchand (biography)

A strong vision attracts people to the team and provides a foundation for achieving team goals. A captivating vision provides a focal point for interesting individuals to join the team and compels them to contribute to the work. It serves as an anchor for the team and over time, the vision needs to be brought back to the team, reviewed, discussed, and, as needed, revised.

Emotional Intelligence among team members contributes to the effective functioning of research teams. Self-awareness gained through much self-reflection, -learning, and -inquiry benefits the leader(s) and participants by enhancing their ability to build relationships. Vision alone is not enough to sustain the team. Vision must be accompanied by the ability to build and nurture strong relationships. This provides people with greater control over their own emotional reactions, improves the quality of their interactions, and perhaps most importantly helps build other-awareness. The better someone gets to know and understand themself, the better they will appreciate those who surround them.

Strong collaborative leadership elicits and capitalizes on the team members’ strengths and is a critical component of team success. Leadership can be demonstrated by every team member, not just the formal leader(s). One of the greatest aspects of working as part of a team is that leadership opportunities abound. New ideas and directions can be easily spun-off and more junior members of the team can step up into those roles.

Mentoring in team science is a great way to lead by example. Didactic training or skills workshops may introduce the concepts of collaboration to junior colleagues. Giving them an opportunity to experience for themselves facing the challenges, as well as the gratifying moments, is where the real learning happens. A mentor recognizes the strengths of each team member, identifies areas in which newer scientists have the greatest potential to grow, and can help coach people to attain their aspirations. With good mentoring, the development of scientists is synchronous with strengthening team dynamics.

Research teams form and develop through critical stages to achieve their highest potential (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing). The most important stage in the cycle is Storming and it is not optional. If the team does not get through this phase successfully, they will never operate like a ‘well-oiled machine.’ Storming is required to develop a positive team dynamic, which sustains and further strengthens a research team, enabling it to achieve successful outcomes.

Effective communication within the research team is a vital component to effective group functioning. Candid discussions are only possible when everyone feels they are in a safe environment and will not suffer negative consequences from stating their views. A safe environment means that difficult conversations can be had in a respectful manner and enables the team to discuss new, and even risky, scientific ideas, to take research into new, previously unconsidered directions, and address concerns about data and/or results.

Individual contributions should be recognized, reviewed, and rewarded in the context of a collaboration. This is among the most challenging things that research organizations face. How to promote the individual in the context of collaborative efforts? Institutions are exploring different strategies such as encouraging investigators to keep track of contributions to each publication, revising promotion and tenure criteria and asking collaborators to write letters of support for faculty applying for tenure. Who better than a collaborator to ask about someone’s real role in the team?

Conflict can be both a resource and a challenge—a resource because disagreement can expand thinking, add new knowledge to a complex scientific problem, and stimulate new directions for research. A challenge because if it is not handled skillfully, conflict impedes effective team functioning and stifles scientific advancement. The best time for a team to decide how they want to manage disagreement is early in their relationship. It is much easier to decide how to manage conflict productively when the group is not actively clashing.

Highly collaborative teams can transcend different organizational structures, extending their reach across and beyond the organization. They often function within the context of multiple and sometimes interconnected systems, and they can help establish strong networks of researchers who together can accomplish more than they could as individuals. The depth and breadth of types of teams is probably limitless and made easier with technologies that permit virtual participation and interaction. That said, building relationships is key and must be the initial focus upon which more connections can be built and established.


For nearly a decade, the Collaboration and Team Science Field Guide has served as a valuable resource for scientists participating in or leading a research team. Institutional leaders have used it to help guide change at an organizational level, shifting research culture from a primary investigator-initiated focus to one that embraces collaborative and cross-cutting efforts across disciplinary dedicated departments.

What has your experience been with collaboration and team work? Which of these take aways resonate most with you? Are there others that you would add?

To find out more:
Bennett, L. M., Gadlin, H., and Marchand, C. (2018). Collaboration and Team Science Field Guide. 2nd edn., National Institutes of Health Publication, No. 18-7660, National Cancer Institute: Bethesda, Unites States of America. Online: (850KB PDF).

Biography: L. Michelle Bennett directs the Center for Research Strategy (CRS), a strategic scientific planning and analysis office that serves the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director and supports NCI priorities. Located within the Office of the Director, CRS is ideally positioned to collaborate, catalyze, convene, and coordinate initiatives across NCI’s Divisions, Offices, and Centers. She has extensive practical experience in promoting collaboration and team-based approaches by bringing together research scientists with diverse backgrounds and expertise to solve complex scientific problems and is certified as an Executive Coach. She is the recipient of many awards, including National Institutes of Health and Institute Director’s Awards, the NCI Women’s Scientist Advisors Achievement Award, and the NCI Exceptional Mentor Award.

Biography: Christophe Marchand is a Health Scientist Administrator in the Center for Research Strategy within the Office of the Director at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). He led the Professional Development Committee of the NCI Staff Scientists and Staff Clinicians Organization from 2011 to 2016 and has been involved in capacity building ever since. He is the recipient of 3 NCI Director’s Innovation Awards (2007, 2011 & 2016).

10 thoughts on “Collaboration and team science: Top ten take aways”

  1. Thanks Michelle and Christophe for a really interesting blog. A couple of things sprang to mind when I was reading
    The first one was that the team is put together for a purpose – to research, to build, to deliver something and wouldn’t be deemed successful without achieving its purpose. This brings the possible (or even inevitable) trade-off between behaviour and skills/knowledge when choosing a successful team (if we think that success has multiple dimensions). The other thing I that occurred to me were the various dimensions of diversity of the team. I know that you are talking about teams in general and not specific to a subject matter, but even diversity at the level of team roles or functions, e.g. Belbin’s work – understanding what function you tend to play in a team and making sure there is broad enough range of the diverse roles in the team. Do you consider these aspects as important? Thanks, Melissa

  2. I want to urge everyone to not just read the updated field guide but use sections in professional development workshops. I have done that with great success in sessions I organized within my university’s Division of Research. They are wonderfully user-friendly: with explanations, guiding questions, tips, etc. Thanks to Michelle and Christophe for your blog and most of all an outstanding resource. Julie Thompson Klein, Wayne State University

  3. I really enjoyed your blog! As a student in this field, I thought it was particularly interesting and valuable that you chose to highlight mentorship as distinct from leadership. Both are very important! I was also happy to see some overlap between your tips and my own (link below)- seems like our research community is on the right track!

    • Thank you for sharing your insights. We were also pleased to see some level of overlapping with your Top Ten.

  4. Wonderful summary! Thank you. I am wondering how emotional intelligence and self-reflection is taught. It seems that some are more intuitive than others when it comes to knowing themselves. Why is this so? With this, how do you convince others that these skills are essential alongside the other core scientific practices? Any insight would be most helpful!

    • Team leaders and members should always be aware of their emotional reactions and try to manage them the best they can, as these emotional reactions can have strong and direct negative impact on the rest of the team. Contributions to the team can certainly benefit from self-reflection. Although, people may not think that the consideration of interpersonal dynamics is relevant to biomedical research, there is more of a connection between scientific thinking and self-reflection than appears at first glance.
      Self-awareness does not emerge without effort; usually it is the result of actively engaging in self-reflection and exploration. It is extremely difficult to convince people to become more self-aware – there is an old joke: “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” Answer: “Only one, but the lightbulb has got to want to change.” There are many trainings that can help people attain and achieve higher levels of self-awareness and to learn to enhance emotional intelligence, but people have got to want to engage. We have known, interacted with, and had in our workshops scientists who have no interest in collaborating or being part of a team – that is okay, they have different preferred ways of working. Maybe they can contribute their expertise in an indirect way if it would benefit the team. We are not sure why some people are more drawn to this than others – it is likely very complex.


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