Team science techniques for highly effective teams
Ecology is becoming an increasingly collaborative science, as seen in part by the increasing number of authors on ecology publications.
As an early career ecologist, you’ve probably already worked in at least a few, and maybe many, collaborative research teams, whether your collaborators came from within your lab group, or institutions around the world. You’ve probably also already realized that not all collaborative teams are the same- while some are high-performing, others continually struggle with project management and interpersonal challenges, from inefficient, seemingly rudderless meetings to tension about authorship on group publications. The good news is that high-performing teams do not come together coincidentally, but are a result of intentional actions and mindsets framed from the “science of team science”- thus by including team science approaches in our work, we can improve the nature of our collaborations.
The science of team science seeks to identify common challenges and potential solutions for working in collaborative teams (National Research Council, 2015). At its core, the science of team science promotes best practices for interdisciplinary communication, facilitation, conflict management, and leadership. While these activities have often been pejoratively labeled “soft skills” and excluded from training programs, the inclusion of team science approaches can improve the effectiveness of our teams, and thus, the science we are able to conduct.
If you’re keen to improve your interactions in collaborative ecological research, here are three steps to get started:
- Seek out training in team science best practices
Regardless of career stage, training in team science can go a long way toward improving group effectiveness. Luckily, abundant resources already exist that can provide best practices for individuals and teams as a whole. The supplement to Cheruvelil et al. (2014) provides examples of specific activities that can be implemented in collaborative groups, from initial team building activities that set team norms and expectations to check-in activities that help maintain momentum throughout the life of a project. Similarly, the SciTS website serves as a clearinghouse for trainings and tools to improve team functioning. Finally, you can help improve future collaborative teams by advocating for the inclusion of team science training in undergraduate and graduate programs at your institution, or in your lab group.
- Facilitation is your friend
Having effective team meetings become increasingly challenging as group size grows. In addition, our increased reliance on virtual meetings and long distance collaboration present their own challenges for holding productive meetings and maintaining group momentum. Agreeing upon group norms, including designating meeting facilitators, can help set the stage for productive meetings. The facilitator helps the group stick to a meeting agenda (a critical component of successful meetings!) by focusing discussion and synthesizing differing viewpoints. In addition, the facilitator helps ensure that all voices are heard- which can be particularly important for early career participants and members of underrepresented groups. These and other facilitation techniques help use team time productively, and thus keep team members more engaged in the project as a whole.
- Lead by example
Senior personnel on projects may lack formal training in project management and team science- but that doesn’t mean they’re not aware of the value of team science techniques and open to new ideas and approaches! Leading by example in group interactions can help demonstrate the value of team science approaches to ecological collaborations. Checking in with yourself with the following questions can help ensure that you’re being the type of collaborator you hope to work with:
- Am I being compassionate toward myself and the others in the room?
- Am I staying open and curious? What is it I want to learn, know, or question?
- Am I sharing what I am really thinking? Am I modeling the transparent way we want to work together?
- Am I committed to being here and doing this work with those present? How am I showing that?
- Am I holding myself accountable for my contributions to this project?
With small nudges toward team science best practices, we can all help improve the performance and enjoyment of participating in collaborative ecological research. Good luck!
Kait Farrell is a freshwater ecosystem ecologist, and is currently a postdoc at Virginia Tech. Her current research investigates how climate and land use changes may alter nutrient cycling and export from lakes. She is also passionate about open educational tools, and is co-developing a suite of online modules to bring macrosystems ecology concepts and advanced computational tools into undergraduate classrooms. You can find her at www.kaitlinjfarrell.weebly.com, on Twitter (@farrellkj2) or by email at farrellk [at] vt.edu .