Integration in inter- and transdisciplinary research: how can the leadership challenges be addressed?

By Lisa Deutsch and Sabine Hoffmann

1. Lisa Deutsch (biography)
2. Sabine Hoffmann (biography)

How can the integration required in large inter- and transdisciplinary programs be effectively led? What challenges do leaders of integration in such programs face and how can they address them? What are the particular challenges in using a theory of change as an integrative tool?

We describe five key challenges that we encountered when leading the integration for a large 10-year inter- and transdisciplinary research program, which explored novel non-grid water and sanitation systems that can function as comparable alternatives to conventional large network-based systems. We experienced these challenges when applying the tool Theory of Change to facilitate communication, collaboration and integration among the team members (for more on theory of change see the i2Insights contribution by Heléne Clark). We also share the strategies we employed to address these challenges. The lessons we developed are likely to be applicable to other inter- and transdisciplinary research programs.

Challenge 1: Managing time while dealing with differing perspectives

Any research project or program is constrained by time. However, inter- and transdisciplinary teams usually require higher time investments as differing, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives need to be proactively dealt with. While it is advisable to allow “productive conflict,” at some point the team needs to move on.

Strategy employed: Leaders often aim to force a consensus. Instead, we decided to work with two different assumptions about how fast change is occurring within the urban water sector and what this means for joint planning of activities across disciplinary departments by developing two scenarios. We split the workshop group accordingly. Interestingly, when each group’s conclusions were discussed in plenary, it turned out that the implications did not differ in a way that would require a substantial adaptation of the program activities and its overall direction.

Challenge 2: Balancing concrete and abstract discussions

Inter- and transdisciplinary research addressing sustainability problems needs to balance theoretical conceptualizations with concrete empirical evidence and good contextual knowledge (in our case about the urban water sector in Switzerland and its respective actors, their interests, rationales and needs). Achieving such a balance is key to developing interventions and creating action-oriented knowledge.

Strategy employed: To ground the discussions and develop concrete interventions we:

  1. strengthened the involvement of junior researchers as they tend to perform data collection and analysis within projects and are therefore very familiar with the context; and
  2. used an actor analysis distinguishing between
    • movers (in favor of the intended change),
    • floaters (undecided/no clear position) and
    • blockers (clear position against the envisioned change).

Program members were encouraged to name specific actors or institutions, and avoid overarching categories such as ‘utility’ or ‘water association’. This process was further facilitated by asking questions such as ‘Who needs to do what differently at which points in time?’ and ‘What is needed beyond knowledge by actor X to contribute to change in organization Y?’.

Challenge 3: Ensuring group diversity while balancing comfort and discomfort

Groups that are already well-established have usually built high levels of trust, which can be beneficial for working across disciplinary boundaries, as well as across science, policy and practice. However, during our theory of change development process, we found that members of such well-established groups tended to reaffirm rather than critically question each other. This also resulted in a question-answer dynamic between us (the leaders and facilitators) and the group members, instead of an in-depth group discussion.

Strategy employed: To address this challenge, we assembled groups who had not previously collaborated with each other, while also ensuring a diversity of disciplines, departments and hierarchical positions (from scientific assistants, PhDs, postdocs, to group leaders, department heads and directorate members).

While this led to more productive discussions and insights, it brought with it another challenge, namely creating a learning zone between an “understimulating comfort zone and an overly disruptive discomfort zone” (Freeth and Caniglia, 2020, p. 254; and, their i2Insights contribution Using discomfort to prompt learning in collaborative teams). In moderating the discussion, we therefore made sure that each input was treated with genuine curiosity instead of being taken off the table too quickly.

Challenge 4: Obtaining buy-in and overcoming reservations about new tools and approaches

Inter- and transdisciplinary research often employs new, innovative tools to create novel insights and more holistic knowledge. However, this can lead to initial reservations from research participants. In our case there were reservations about using the theory of change, including:

  • the name itself (“too fuzzy”)
  • the scientific grounding of the tool (“where is the theory behind the theory of change”?)
  • the bigger picture of necessary interventions to create a desired long-term change and the implications for the workloads of those involved (“When I look at this and imagine that we have to do all of it, then I feel a bit overwhelmed”).

Strategy employed: We dealt with these reservations by remaining responsive to emergent needs and constructive criticism, and adapting our theory of change process accordingly, including:

  • substantial efforts to explain the rationale not only at the beginning, but also during the process
  • allowing participants to call the tool whatever they wanted (eg., impact pathways) to avoid discussions about the name distracting from the work required
  • comparing the theory of change we developed with insights from the transformation literature, as well as getting feedback on our theory of change from an expert in the transformation community
  • reassuring our program members that the intention was not to shift responsibility for supporting the envisioned sustainability transformation onto them, but to create a bigger picture that allows potential for collaborations with other actors to be identified, along with conscious decisions about which activities to get involved in.

Challenge 5: Fulfilling both the service and science roles of inter- and transdisciplinary integration leaders

The productive employment of inter- and transdisciplinary tools is not only a question of having good facilitation skills, but also requires those in charge of leading the integration processes to engage in a creative science role.

Strategy employed: We invested substantial time outside the workshops in identifying relevant gaps and open questions, as well as making critical connections among different disciplinary views and projects based on material we gathered during the workshops. The cognitive challenge of integrating those different perspectives into a coherent whole required us to develop a certain amount of expertise in the topic. This, in turn, required digging deeper into different disciplinary knowledge fields or asking different disciplinary experts follow-up questions.

Although this integration process beyond group meetings resulted in a significantly higher workload than initially expected, assuming both a supportive service and a creative science role offered a valuable opportunity for us to strengthen our expertise in both facilitation and integration – expertise which is key to any inter- and transdisciplinary endeavor.

Concluding questions

What challenges have you faced when leading integration in inter- and transdisciplinary research? What strategies did you employ to overcome them? Do any of our strategies look like they would work for you?

To find out more:

Deutsch, L., Belcher, B., Claus, R. and Hoffmann, S. (2021) Leading inter- and transdisciplinary research: Lessons from applying theories of change to a strategic research program, Environmental Science and Policy, 120: 29-41. (Online – open access):

Deutsch, L, and Hoffmann, S. (2021). Developing Theories of Change for supporting transformations in the urban water sector. Lessons learned from an inter- and transdisciplinary research program. Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, Network for Transdisciplinary Research (td-net) website. (Online – open access):

Theory of change in inter- and transdisciplinary research by Josefa Kny, Sabine Hoffmann, Emilia Nagy and Martina Schäfer


Freeth, R. and Caniglia, G. (2020). Learning to collaborate while collaborating: advancing interdisciplinary sustainability research. Sustainability Science, 15, 1: 247-261. (Online):

Biography: Lisa Deutsch is currently conducting a PhD on integrative leadership and framework conditions for inter- and transdisciplinary integration at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Duebendorf, and ETH Zurich, both in Switzerland.

Biography: Sabine Hoffmann PhD is group leader of inter- and transdisciplinary research at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Duebendorf, Switzerland. Her research focuses on integration and integrative leadership in large inter- and transdisciplinary research programs.

4 thoughts on “Integration in inter- and transdisciplinary research: how can the leadership challenges be addressed?”

  1. Kudos to you for striving to identify both the general problems and specific solutions inherent in this work.

    It strikes me that your strategy for Challenge 1 falls into the “Detect” stage of the process Laursen et al (2021) proposed to deal with problematic values pluralism. In your case, it turned out that there was no problem to be detected. And so often there is! A cool example, thank you for sharing.

    Laursen, B. K., Gonnerman, C., and Crowley, S. J. (2021). Improving philosophical dialogue interventions to better resolve problematic value pluralism in collaborative environmental science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 87, 54–71.
    and (Basic steps for dealing with problematic value pluralism by Bethany Laursen, Stephen Crowley and Chad Gonnerman)

    • Hi Bethany!

      Many thanks for linking our first challenge to your work on value pluralism, much appreciated! In fact, we experienced both. In some cases, we detected that previously assumed ‘diverging perspectives’ were complementary instead of contradictory (e.g. different actors were more or less important at different points of time for inducing change in the urban water sector). In other cases, however, differences remained (e.g. assumptions about the pace of change and related necessary actions to support it), but awareness was raised with the help of a scenario technique about the potential implications of different scenarios on our research and the overall program. It was a strategy to avoid forcing a consensus, while still acknowledging the assumptions and values present in the room. The experience that certain view points turned out to be complementary, had an integrative effect on the team.


  2. Hi Lisa and Sabine!
    Thank you for sharing this experience.
    It is pretty useful for us here in my faculty since we work with several urban infrastructure projects at the scale of the human habitat.
    Regarding the questions, a challenge I faced while integrating different insights in an interdisciplinary team working on habitat issues, was that the integrated perspectives can be reduced (and are always reduced) while trying to synthesizing them into a unique whole, leading to loss of information/knowledge or characteristics of the original insights.
    Have you experienced a challenge like this? How you overcame it?

    A strategy we used to deal with these challenge was interpreting the disciplinary perspectives as knowledge systems, meaning, in a systems approach. In this way we were able to move forward an integration of different components (insights) into global knowledge systems while simultaneously making a differentiation process of the unique features they have.

    I think Integration and differentiation are two processes that cannot be separated, as we have stated in Vienni et al. (2022) regarding the i2s article written by Bammer et al. (2020).

    Thanks again and hope to see more strategies from you!


    • Dear Daniel!

      Thanks a lot for your comment and sharing your experience and strategy! The challenge you describe sounds very familiar to us. For making disciplinary perspectives “integratable” we often had to leave the level of disciplinary details and ask what the specific disciplinary insight meant for the bigger picture first – hence a system’s approach as you suggest also proved useful for us. In our case, this meant to embrace a bird’s eye view and develop a joint “Theory of Change” (ToC) – a method that we can recommend for both inter- and transdisciplinary teams. Once, we had developed this bigger picture, we had established a certain common ground and it was easier to jointly zoom into specific focus areas and discuss them on a more detailed level. Here it also became clear, that not everyone had to discuss with each other all the time. The ToC helped us to identify who needs to discuss with whom at certain points of time on a more detailed level while others might keep engaging on a more high flying/general level to move the integration process forward.

      I would be very curious to learn about a concrete example on the integration/differentiation aspect from your daily work. Can you give an example from a meeting or workshop that can illustrate this challenge further?



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