Research management

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Advice for effective cross-team collaboration for research

Research teams that might not usually work together are increasingly required to collaborate. Here, Rob Kadel offers five principles that underpin effective project delivery

Rob Kadel's avatar
10 Nov 2023
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Research management

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Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.
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In research settings, we are often called upon to collaborate with others. When teams collaborate, the result can be greater than the sum of its parts, producing outcomes that no one team could complete alone. In this area, the research environment can turn to business strategists and organisational psychologists for generally agreed principles for cross-team collaboration that are required for success.

Seek common understanding

We all tend to work with blinders on, immersed in our own reality of a situation. Too often, we assume that we know where others are coming from, and that they know what we think. Even within a research setting, where broad goals (such as translating research into practice or increasing sponsored funding) drive much of what we do, it can be illuminating to understand how other teams approach such goals.

For example, when a team of faculty works on a proposal to the US National Science Foundation (NSF), their approach and goals are likely to be distinct from those of a team that traditionally writes proposals for the Department of Energy. However, federal dollars are now flowing from agencies such as the US Economic Development Administration and NSF’s Technology, Innovation and Partnerships directorate, and these funders seek to combine, for example, foundational scientific research with applications in public settings that can have an impact on public health in local communities. Proposals for such grants require faculty teams that may not usually work together to collaborate.

Without an understanding of how other teams work through their processes, putting together a collaborative proposal can be an exercise in frustration. Even something as seemingly simple as nomenclature can differ; for example, the NSF tends to use the term “objectives” in the same way that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) uses “aims”. (And reviewers are often put off when a proposal substitutes one term for the other.) In project meetings, the teams end up talking past each other, and confused team members feel embarrassed to ask for clarification.

Cross-team collaboration should start with each team giving an overview of its mission, services and vision for the project, and no one should be made to feel incapable for not understanding processes and terminology outside their purview.

Lay clear ground rules

This may come as a shock, but many researchers do not automatically know how to work as a team. We can be driven by ego, lack active listening skills, be dismissive of those whose educational level or specialty we consider uninformed or prioritise the team’s tasks differently from other team members.

Examining our own perspectives and those of others (see common understanding, above) can drive how we interact with others. Ground rules formalise what we understand about others and how we plan to work as a team. How often will the team meet? What is each team member’s responsibility if they cannot make a meeting? How will we give feedback that is constructive and moves the project forward? What are our expectations for how soon to respond to emails? How will we resolve differences of opinion? Who makes final decisions?

Establishing ground rules that address such issues at the outset of the team’s work will help to avoid common problems and to address other problems when they inevitably arise.

Define and operationalise project goals and scope

When research teams collaborate on a project, one of the most common pitfalls is scope-creep – that is, the scope of the project becoming larger to incorporate the diverse perspectives and objectives of the teams. Establish specific goals at the outset of the process and operationalise them.

For example, if the teams’ goal is to design a space for interdisciplinary research in how people interact with technological augmentations (prosthetics, for example), their early work should focus on explaining what the space will be used for and what it will not be used for. The temptation with cross-collaborating teams is often for the project – in this case, the research space – to become all things to all people. Staying focused on well-defined goals is a cornerstone of project success.

Address institutional leadership needs

Cross-team collaboration in research can also be driven by a directive from the institution’s leadership. Consider projects such as strategic planning, writing or revising policies, addressing capital planning and the management of research space. Each requires teams to collaborate, not just among faculty but with staff and administration as well. When given a task or an established goal for the project, guidance on and updates to those outcomes should be driven by the needs of leadership.

I like to think in terms of the client-consultant relationship. Teams should consider the leader of the project – the person(s) who has given them their charge – a “client” of their expertise and consulting. Teams should feel enabled to ask the leader (the client): what do you need from us? What do you need us to deliver by the end of this project? How much time do we have? What resources can we draw upon? And so on.

These questions should be reconsidered over the life of the project, too, with regular check-ins with the leader. Forces outside the project may require the team to shift focus or methods over time. It is not uncommon for collaborative teams to dive into a project without clear guidance throughout, ultimately delivering something that isn’t useful to the client leader.

Ensure communication has space for vulnerability and uncertainty

Communication is likely the first principle that we think of when talking about collaboration, but it can be dumbfounding how often project teams fail because of a lack of it. So, let’s be absolutely clear: teams that do not communicate effectively will fail in all four of the above areas.

A central aspect of communication across teams with different perspectives – and I know that this term is on the verge of being overused – is vulnerability (that is, having the courage to admit to our shortcomings and ask for help and understanding). Such actions are often disdained in higher education; after all, we scholars are supposed to have all the answers. Vulnerability means briefly putting aside what we think is best for the team and the project and communicating to our teams that we don’t have all the answers. That is likely the great driver for creating a cross-collaborative research team in the first place: none of us has all the answers. Asking others what they think, and keeping those lines of communication open, is paramount for successful team cooperation.

Collaboration among teams is increasingly required in the inter- and transdisciplinary evolution of academic research. Combining teams that don’t ordinarily work together has inherent risks. But the rewards, when the teams proactively consider principles such as those above, can be extraordinary.

Rob Kadel is a senior research scientist and senior director of research programme administration in the Office of the Vice President for Interdisciplinary Research at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Research management

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