By Eric Schearer and Gemma Jiang
How can newly forming cross-disciplinary teams develop effective strategies for working together?
We provide lessons from our experience preparing a cross-disciplinary research proposal for which we leant heavily on the mutual learning mindsets and norms which are the central elements for the Team Effectiveness Model for Science (Schwarz and Bennett, 2021). The principal investigator (Schearer) enlisted the help of a leadership consultant (Jiang).
Mutual learning mindsets and norms
As shown in the figure below, mutual learning comprises a mindset, composed of core values and assumptions, plus specific behaviors derived from the mindset that, together, are essential for effective working relationships.
Mutual learning stands in contrast to unilateral control, which tries to control the outcomes of interactions with others.
Improving mutual learning in new or existing teams is centered on a four-phase intervention (also taken from the Team Effectiveness Model for Science). To cite Schwartz and Bennett (2021) the intervention phases are:
- “training to establish individual and shared ML [mutual learning] mindsets and skill sets;
- team developmental facilitation and individual coaching to broaden and deepen ML [mutual learning] skills and mindsets, including self-reflection and redesign;
- team effectiveness consultation to design mindsets, norms, structures, and processes for team science and team relationships; and
- team effectiveness evaluation for feedback and comprehensive reflection and redesign.”
We particularly adapted individual coaching, structure and process design, and developmental facilitation in our work together.
Many principal investigators have a “lone ranger” mindset which values self-sufficiency. This mindset’s behaviors include reluctance to ask for help or ask questions, and stifling doubts. A “lone ranger” mindset can become a serious obstacle for effectively participating in and leading teams.
We used individual coaching to help the principal investigator shift from a “lone ranger” to a mutual learning mindset. In particular, during bi-weekly check-ins the consultant coached the principal investigator to recognize the epistemological and behavioral differences among team members and create enabling conditions for them to get along and contribute. This exemplifies the mutual learning values of curiosity and compassion. The consultant also provided the principal investigator with emotional support when he was discouraged and exhausted, especially when different team members were at varying stages of developing mutual learning mindsets.
Structure and process design
Some key questions that informed our design process were:
- How should the meetings be structured and facilitated?
- How to form subgroups and enable communication among subgroups?
- How to involve a network of colleagues to review the proposal before submission?
In particular, we valued direct and accountable communication in the pre-submission review process, including:
- finishing the draft one month before the due date and dedicating the last month to gathering and incorporating feedback.
- enabling cross pollination of ideas by asking team members to choose proposal sections to review that were “outside of their comfort zones” but “relevant enough for them to make meaningful contributions”.
- crowdsourcing reviewers from team members’ professional networks, and only asking them to review sections relevant to their expertise. This reduced the burden on reviewers, making them more likely to participate.
Developmental facilitation was used to influence team culture by enabling teams to experience mutual learning mindsets and skills in their regular meetings. The consultant helped the team develop its own expertise, so that they could operate without her.
Key features included:
- clarifying objectives and designing facilitation plans before any meeting.
- spending time building relationships in addition to talking about science. Meetings began with a check-in activity with both personal prompts such as “how has your summer been” and business-relevant prompts such as “how do you feel about the current educational plan”. Checking-in strengthened the human elements of team functions, and advanced both working relationships and individual well-being. In appreciation, one team member, commented: “you gave us permission to just sit around and talk”.
- using facilitation tools appropriate to the meeting objectives. For example, we used The Argument method described in an earlier blog post to choose between two images for the overall educational model. Enabling participatory decision-making exemplified mutual learning behaviors such as “share all relevant information” and “focus on interests, not positions”.
Reflections and Conclusions
Shifting mindsets towards mutual learning can benefit from an outside consultant to help a team learn to reflect on and analyze how they operate. Principal investigators may be reluctant to invite a consultant’s help and may benefit from asking questions such as:
- Can I acknowledge the need for a consultant?
- Can I imagine having a consultant as part of the team?
- Is it going to turn out the way I wanted?
Even with the consultant on board, not everything went as expected. Establishing a new culture is a process. In our case, the new culture did not take root until a few months into the process. It took trust and interdependence between the principal investigator and consultant, and commitment from the whole team, to keep the process going.
What have your experiences been in developing a mutual learning culture in cross-disciplinary teams? Do you have additional lessons to share?
Schwarz, R. M. and Bennett, L. M. (2021). Team effectiveness model for science (TEMS): Using a mutual learning shared mindset to design, develop, and sustain science teams. Journal of Clinical and Translational Science, 5, e157: 1–6. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1017/cts.2021.824
Biography: Eric Schearer PhD is Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Director of the Center for Human-Machine Systems at Cleveland State University and a Staff Scientist at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. He works to restore reaching and grasping function to people with paralyzed arms after spinal cord injury by developing control strategies for functional electrical stimulation neuroprotheses and wearable robots. He is a proponent of the Integrated Knowledge Translation Principles for conducting research in partnership with the disability community.
Biography: Gemma Jiang PhD is the Director of Organizational Innovation at the University of Pittsburgh in the USA. She applies complexity leadership theory, social network analysis and a suite of facilitation methods to enable transdisciplinary teams to converge upon solutions for challenges of societal importance.