Training Scientists For Our Interdisciplinary Future

April 13, 2020

By Stan Gloss and Allison Proffitt

April 13, 2020 | TRENDS FROM THE TRENCHES | Interdisciplinary research is continuously lauded as a key to making progress in the life sciences and healthcare. But such approaches come with some particular organizational demands. While teams have been fairly well studied in the business world for several years now, L. Michelle Bennett Ph.D., believes that successful scientific team functioning is a bit different.

Bennett trained as a biomedical researcher and did her postdoctoral fellowship in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) IRP, working on characterizing and localizing the human BRACA1 gene to the long arm of chromosome 17. But her thinking shifted from bench science to administration as she observed different groups of scientists working together. She began considering the dynamics of scientific collaborations.

She added training as an executive coach to her biomedical background and took a role at the National Cancer Institute to catalyze, launch, and nurture interdisciplinary teams within NCI into centers of excellence.” Bennett brings a lot of organizational management to the task.

“I became really interested in understanding what was contributing to success and what was not contributing to success on these teams,” she told Stan Gloss during a recent conversation for the Trends from the Trenches column. “Some of the faculties and working groups and centers of excellence were really taking off; they were doing really well. Some of them were really stuck, and some of them were just not working.”

Bennett, along with her co-authors, has recorded much of her findings in Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide, available from the National Cancer Institute. “Today, with modern research methods becoming more specialized and pressing health issues being truly complex, collaborations among scientists trained in different fields have become essential,” the authors write in the Field Guide introduction.

While team dynamics can be very complex, Bennett says a few fundamental problems often get in the way of collaboration and scientific progress. First on her list: lack of a shared vision among team members.

“I think you would be surprised if I told you that I have done workshops with groups… and they don’t even realize they haven’t formalized a [shared vision], or that everybody can’t state the vision in the same way,” Bennett said. In general, team members have very clear visions of what they are doing and how they are moving toward their understand of the shared vision, “except when push comes to shove, it’s not always the same shared vision.”

The result, Bennett warns, are individuals setting off on paths that never intersect with other team members. “If they’re working on pathways that won’t converge or won’t end up creating this larger whole, that can be a challenge!”

The second big barrier to successful collaboration is lack of trust. “Humans pretty much fall into two camps,” Bennett explains. Trust in others must either be built—starting relationships with low trust and allowing others to earn increased trust over time, or maintained—extending full trust in others immediately and rescinding it when trust is broken.

Trust is foundational to strong teams, Bennett explains. Open communication as well as our willingness to share data, reagents, and credit is all built on trust.

One of the best ways to build and maintain trust within teams is also the third foundational problem that Bennett often sees missing in scientific teams: clear roles and responsibilities. Establishing clear roles and responsibilities, “puts a really powerful structure in place for people to be very clear and purposeful about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, how they’re going to act, how they’re going to interact, how they’re going to share,” and much more, Bennett explains. That structure builds and maintains a foundational level of trust, and also directs the team’s progress toward the shared vision.

“In teams that we’ve studied and those teams that I’ve worked with, when they have taken the time to set clear expectations it enables and empowers them. They have a clearer start, and they have a much better chance of getting through the storming phase.”

Weathering the Storm

The “storming phase”, Bennett explains, is an inevitable phase of team development proposed in Bruce Tuckerman’s 1965 Team-Development Model. Teams form, then storm—“People don’t really trust each other yet; roles and responsibilities aren’t clear. There’s a lot of tension that comes up during the storming phase,” Bennett explains— then norm, settling into the established norms of the team with clarified roles and trust, and finally perform.

“The thing that’s interesting about the storming phase is that it’s not optional,” Bennett explains. “Teams have to go through storming or they can’t get to norming. Every time there’s a shift in the team, the team will have another phase of storming.”

This is something to which leaders need to pay attention, Bennett warns. When we start to see differences and tensions arise in teams, we tend to what to smooth it all over. “We tend to not want to move into the conflict, but we must get through the storming phase to make progress.”

When Bennett assesses team health, she often asks individual team members the “magic wand” question: If you could wave a magic wand and fix one thing in your work, what would that one thing be? Often, Bennett says, there is a lot of overlap in that answer, highlighting the biggest team weaknesses.

Among the problem spots? Communication, of course. “Under-communication is a huge issue,” Bennett says. “There are always people who feel they’re not getting enough information, that things are happening without them, that they’re not in the inner circle.” Delivering difficult feedback is also a common challenge, one that is sometimes avoided. “Things go unsaid; things go unmanaged; things go undiscussed. Then, you can end up with elephants in the room,” she says.

It’s well worth the work to build strong teams with a shared vision and increasing trust, that pursue the goal via clear roles and responsibilities, Bennett says. “Collaborative teams, successful teams, have figured out how to effectively communicate with each other,” she says. “I think innovation and creativity are a huge potential output for collaborative teams.”