A process for generating new cross-disciplinary projects

By Gemma Jiang

Gemma Jiang (biography)

What is a good way for researchers in large cross-disciplinary science initiatives, who may not know each other well, to generate viable project ideas?

This blog post introduces a field-tested “double helix” process that leverages the benefits of idea generation by a large group and idea refinement in small groups.

This double helix process is most helpful in large cross-disciplinary science initiatives that meet at least one of the following three characteristics:

  • Tackling wicked problems with both scientific and societal significance
  • Requiring deep integration across multiple disciplines that will eventually lead to new meta-disciplines
  • Consisting of more than 20 core research members.

The nature of the challenges, the depth of integration and the size of the group in such large initiatives require systemic support to move ideas to projects.

The double helix cross-disciplinary project generation process that I have developed (illustrated by the figure below) takes six to eight weeks. It involves three initiative-wide group events sprinkled with gatherings where a small group of researchers get together to take a deep dive into new ideas (“idea workgroups” in blue text in the figure below).

The three initiative-wide group events are: ideation workshop, peer learning workshop and focus tank workshop (pink text in the figure below). Each workshop takes from 90 to 120 minutes, accommodates 20-40 people and can be held face-to-face or online. Group members can be at different stages of their careers, from students to full professors.

The double helix cross-disciplinary project generation process (Source: Gemma Jiang)

Ideation Workshop

The purpose is to crowdsource ideas and gauge interest in starting new projects.

This workshop goes through three sequential steps:

  1. Crowdsource and focus on cross-disciplinary research questions. All workshop participants submit their answers to this question “what research questions do you feel excited to get started” and vote for their favorite questions from the list developed by the whole group. The researchers who proposed the questions with the highest votes become the topic leaders. They elaborate on their questions and serve as the host for the next step.
  2. Explore project options. Each topic leader hosts a break-out room and invites the other participants to self-organize around the topics. Each group member uses a shared document to answer a few guiding questions, such as:
    • Why is this interesting from your domain expertise?
    • What has constrained you from answering this question in the past? How do you see this cross-disciplinary group overcoming the constraints of the past?
    • How do you see your expertise contributing to answering this question?
  3. Form idea workgroups. After hearing a short report from each breakout room, all participants sign up for all the topics they want to work on. After the workshop, the topic leaders are expected to call additional meetings to explore the ideas further in idea workgroups.

Peer Learning Workshop

The purpose is to enable cross-idea learning among the nascent idea workgroups. This workshop can happen between 2 and 4 weeks after the ideation workshop, giving the workgroups time to further develop their ideas ahead of this workshop.

This workshop goes through the following three sequential steps:

  1. Topic leaders present their thinking so far. Other workshop participants ask clarifying questions.
  2. Dive deep on each topic: similar to Step 2 during the ideation workshop, participants self-organize around topics in breakout rooms. Using two rounds of breakout rooms encourages cross-pollination of ideas across topics and disciplines.
  3. Harvest insights: each topic leader shares new insights arising through the process and invites further participation in follow-up idea workgroup gatherings.

This process is called peer learning because participants sharpen their thinking by learning from each other without the presence of external coaches or experts.

Focus Tank

While the primary purpose for both the ideation workshop and the peer learning workshop is to iterate ideas through robust cross-disciplinary interaction, the focus tank purpose is to map the group’s assets, and to assemble new project teams. This workshop can happen between 2 and 4 weeks after the peer learning workshop, giving the idea workgroups enough time to incorporate insights from the peer-learning workshop.

The focus tank also goes through three sequential steps.

  1. Topic leaders present their thinking, with much more substance. Other workshop participants ask clarifying questions.
  2. Map assets and assemble teams. Topic leaders host breakout rooms and workshop participants self-organize around topics, deciding whether they will be a primary team member or an auxiliary team member. A primary member is a fully functioning research team member involved in all aspects of the research cycle. An auxiliary member contributes their assets, such as knowledge about the literature, software, data, contacts and also serves as a peer coach as the project develops. Since each topic is cross-disciplinary, it is likely that both primary and auxiliary members will represent a mixture of different disciplines.
  3. Express gratitude: topic leaders express gratitude for the support they have received, and announce immediate next steps to engage their team members.


In my experience, the double helix process can be expected to yield three to six new project ideas, each with cross-disciplinary research team members who have a clear understanding of assets they can draw on. These new project ideas may be ready to implement, but more commonly will need further support to move forward.

How have you generated new cross-disciplinary projects? Are there ideas from the double helix process that might be helpful?

Acknowledgement: Funding for this research is provided by the US National Science Foundation Award ID: #2118240, Imageomics: A New Frontier of Biological Information Powered by Knowledge-Guided Machine Learning, Harnessing the Data Revolution (HDR) Institute, National Science Foundation.

Biography: Gemma Jiang PhD is Senior Team Scientist at the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRISS) of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, USA. She applies complexity leadership theory, social network analysis, and a suite of facilitation methods to enable cross-disciplinary science teams to converge upon solutions for challenges of societal importance.

5 thoughts on “A process for generating new cross-disciplinary projects”

  1. Gemma, thank you for sharing your approach to cross-disciplinary project development. There are some parallels between your process and the structure of the model I was involved in developing at the National Academies (and still use in my practice). Breaking synchronous interaction into three relatively short sessions across several weeks may help busy researchers fit the work into their schedules.

    What kind of pre-workshop preparation (if any) have you used to help prepare participants for cross-disciplinary dialogue? We built that into our model based on evaluation data and found it effective in providing a common language or “touchstone” experience for groups to draw upon at various points in their work.

    As a facilitator/host, how do you advise participations to manage full and auxiliary roles across multiple groups during the “pink” sessions?

    How large of a group do you think this would work for? I’m immediately thinking of how your approach could blend with mine in interesting ways. Our conferences were in-person and went up to 180 people.

    • Thank you for the comments, Anne! I am still waiting to read about your approach, or learning more about it in person. It would be such a valuable contribution to this community.

      The answer to your first two questions (pre-workshop preparation and managing roles) lies in the project leaders. I work with them individually before the workshop to make sure they are comfortable about sharing their ideas. This is probably the most important thing, to overcome the fear of vulnerability. Academics are much more comfortable sharing their accomplishments than their questions. I always wonder how many ideas never saw the day light because of the lack of encouragement. That was my original intention for developing this process, to provide a well supported environments for new ideas to sprout. The researchers that presented their ideas are all very committed, so the rest kind of take care of itself. I check in with them to see how they are doing through leadership coaching circles.

      As to the group size, that is an interesting question. For a single facilitator, I am confident that I can facilitate this process for up to 40 people. This process definitely can be scaled to a large audience – it just needs more facilitators.

      • Thanks for the added context, Gemma. Behind-the-scenes support is very important. Our NAKFI (National Academies Keck Futures Initiative) conferences didn’t have pre-defined leaders for the groups, but often one (or more) emerged. We provided support for mentor/coaches (who were also our committee members) and over time developed support materials for the groups so they didn’t need to self-generate questions or processes when conversations stalled or became contentious. The core of the approach I use was published by National Academies Press in 2018 https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/25239/. Though I’ve adapted my thinking since then, I still draw heavily on that approach because I am confident in its applicability and results. I’m strongly in favor of building capacity for self-facilitation in workshops like these to set teams up to function effectively after the workshop experience.


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