Teamwork Is Key To Solving Complex Research Problems

Teamwork Is Key To Solving Complex Research Problems Author: ELIZABETH CULOTTA Every team needs members who fill four basic roles, according to management consultant Glenn Parker, author of Team Players and Teamwork (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Inc., 1990). One person can play more than one role, but most researchers interviewed by The Scientist agree that in successful teams, someone fills each of these niches. The contributor: Contributors work on a piece of the project and deliver their

Mar 8, 1993
Elizabeth Culotta

Teamwork Is Key To Solving Complex Research Problems Author: ELIZABETH CULOTTA

Every team needs members who fill four basic roles, according to management consultant Glenn Parker, author of Team Players and Teamwork (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Inc., 1990). One person can play more than one role, but most researchers interviewed by The Scientist agree that in successful teams, someone fills each of these niches.

The contributor: Contributors work on a piece of the project and deliver their expertise to solve problems. The majority of scientists fall into this category, says Parker. For example, in teams that model climate, a contributor might supply crucial temperature data. "They might not say much, but they'll contribute that one key piece of data, and that's what you need," says Jonathan Overpeck, a paleoclimatologist at the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration in Boulder, Colo.

The communicator: This person keeps track of social interactions, heals conflict, and keeps various team members informed. Communicators are sometimes scarce on scientific teams, and so may be especially valuable, says Parker. For example, computer scientist James Coggins of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is collaborating with ophthalmologists, physicists, and mathematicians on a new way to mathematically describe the shape of the cornea. One member, a research associate in ophthalmology, serves as the glue that keeps the group together. "She's the communications hub," says Coggins. "I go and tell her what I'm doing, and she'll tell the ophthalmologist, and she'll tell me what the physicist and mathematician are doing."

The challenger: This is the skeptic, who questions others' ideas and results. In Coggins's vision project, "the ophthalmologist is our challenger. The others are learning that even if their idea is a great mathematical idea, it's of no use if ophthalmologists can't understand how to use it." Perhaps reflecting the nature of the scientific method, scientific teams usually have no shortage of challengers, says Parker. That can lead to an overload of conflict. "There are lots of good questions being asked, but there's a tendency to perhaps enjoy the fight instead of what they're fighting for," says Parker.

The collaborator: This person articulates a shared vision for a project and pitches in wherever needed. Having a shared mission is crucial, scientists agree. "If the goal's not clear, then people may work very hard--in opposite directions," says Stephen Evola, a research director at Ciba Seeds Agricultural Biotechnology Unit in Research Triangle Park, N.C. For example, he helped lead an 18-member team that recently succeeded in creating a corn plant resistant to a troublesome pest, the corn borer. Researchers had to develop new technology to insert genes into corn--a tough problem that easily might have become a goal in its own right. Evola helped make sure everyone kept the larger team goal in mind.

All these roles are important, team experts say, but the most valuable team members are those who can identify what roles a team is missing--and pitch in to play that character.

In the 1970s, climatologist John Kutzbach of the University of Wisconsin and colleague Thompson Webb III of Brown University had a bold idea. To help understand Earth's climate, they would gather an interdisciplinary group of scientists and use a supercomputer to model the climate of the last ice age.

The team included geologists, paleoecologists, marine scientists, glaciologists, and climate modelers and was called COHMAP, for Cooperative Holocene Mapping Project. Together, the researchers tested the computer model against data from the geologic record, and they found some areas of striking agreement. Their results, including a 1988 Science paper with 33 authors (COHMAP Members, 241:1043), are widely regarded as a seminal contribution to the field.

The secret to their success? Interdisciplinary teamwork, says Kutzbach. The team had access to different lines of independent evidence of past climatic conditions. "When you found someone in another discipline singing the same song, it was really nice," he says. "And even if there was disagreement, that told us where there were problems."

Indeed, researchers in many fields now recognize that no single person is able to contribute all the necessary expertise to solve increasingly complex problems. And so, from universities to corporate labs, scientists are signing on to teams.

But group dynamics among scientists are not always smooth. Scientists are trained to nurture an individual vision, and it's not always easy for them to harness their efforts to a team. How can managers and team members help make it work?

Research teams need a shared mission, a good organizational structure, and plenty of attention to interpersonal interactions, say Kutzbach and other experienced team leaders. And though few scientists get formal training in teamwork, successful teams offer lessons in collaboration.

For example, COHMAP served as a classroom for Jonathan Overpeck, now a paleoclimatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo. Overpeck got his Ph.D. in 1985 while working on a piece of the COHMAP project. "I'm a COHMAP kid," he says. "I remember those annual meetings--in Madison, [Wis.] in the summer--as the best I've ever been to. Since then, I've been working my collaborations along the same lines as I saw at COHMAP."

One lesson Overpeck learned: the importance of social interactions. At COHMAP meetings, he talked with scientists from all over the world while sharing beers; today he finds that collaborations "with an element of fun" are most productive.

The social aspects of teamwork are even more important when the team is multinational, team leaders say. "I've seen it again and again at meetings in Europe: We'll socialize in the evening, and the next morning you go to the meeting and people are more friendly, more open--and more gets done," says Overpeck.

Overpeck has identified one of the key elements in successful teamwork--and one that scientific teams sometimes don't appreciate, says Lawerenceville, N.J.-based management consultant Glenn Parker.

Different cultural backgrounds can create working problems unless people take the time to get to know each other, says Parker. For example, he was called in to resolve conflict in a team that included an Asian-born chemist who was something of a loner. Parker asked team members to tell their life stories. The Asian chemist related how she had been brought up by her grandmother to be self-reliant, and how she had come, alone, to the United States for graduate study, and then stayed on. Knowing her history helped her colleagues understand and respect her independent style, says Parker.

Getting acquainted in the beginning may be good strategy, since the early stages of a collaboration--when the overall goal is defined and responsibilities assigned--may be especially tricky, team leaders say. For example, computer scientist James Coggins of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is part of a working group of the National Cancer Institute. The team's goal is to design new software to plan radiation therapy. Team members are scattered around the U.S. in three sites, on the East and West coasts and in the Midwest.

The initial plan for dividing up the job was for each site to write a version of software, and send it on to the next site. The receiving site would then manipulate the existing program. But that arrangement was ripe for conflict among sites, so Coggins stepped in with a different plan. All sites agreed on a minimal supporting software platform, and each site was responsible for writing programs to work with that platform. Naturally, the team spent a long time thrashing out the platform--but potential conflicts were settled early in the collaboration, rather than at the end, says Coggins.

Working with scientists hundreds of miles away, as Coggins's group does, creates its own problems and often changes the nature of the interaction, team leaders say. "Even if you're one building away, it makes a difference," says Alistair Glass, director of passive components research at AT&T Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, N.J. "We have two facilities 35 miles apart, and it's very clear that it's much harder [to collaborate]. Even within hallways, geography makes a difference. It's important whose lab you're next to."

Physicist John Madey, director of the free-electron laser group at Duke University, agrees that "physical proximity is very important"--and he designed the new laser building at Duke to ensure such proximity. Physicists' offices in the new building are clustered in a group, so no one is left isolated.

Of course, scientists often have no choice: They must work with colleagues across town or even across the ocean. Such collaborations rely on E-mail, phone, fax, and, perhaps, video conferences. But the technology is still no substitute for face- to-face meetings.

Successful long-distance collaborations, therefore, tend to have a very focused goal. Specific tasks are parceled out among far- flung team members, each of whom tends to act as what Parker calls a "contributor" (see story on page 20). For example, an interdisciplinary group led by Lisa Cannon-Albright at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City recently narrowed the search for the gene for familial malignant melanoma, pinning the gene to a region on chromosome 9. The high-profile paper last November (L. Cannon-Albright, et al., Science, 258:1148, 1992) had 16 coauthors from all over the U.S.--but the closest collaborations occurred within a tight core of researchers at Utah, says Cannon-Albright. "Most of the collaborators did different pieces and were added in the last four weeks or so. They gave us information, and we took over from there." The whole team didn't meet together until after the paper was accepted.

So even in this larger team, the day-to-day experience of each scientist was that of working in a small group.

That's true for classic "big science" projects, too, says Gene Fisk, deputy spokesman for the D-zero project at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. The D-zero experiment involves about 350 physicists who seek to understand the basic constituents of matter by studying the particles produced when protons and antiprotons crash together. The researchers are organized into groups.

Still, subgroups must rely on each other--and that can sometimes lead to conflict. For example, physicists who analyze data depend on the software that processes and manages data files. Fisk recalls one Saturday morning computer users' meeting, at which one physicist complained that he wasn't getting help from the computer division. Fisk had to serve as the liaison between the dissatisfied physicist and the computer specialists. He and others make sure that there are organizational structures--such as the computer users' meeting--to deal with such frustration.

Of course, it's possible to have too many meetings. If the only purpose of a meeting is to keep everyone informed, there may be a more efficient way to convey the information, says Parker. "We urge people to remember the cost of meetings. If you add up the time of everyone involved, they're quite expensive."

Working in a team does demand extra attention to administration, logistics, and personal concerns. But most experienced team researchers wouldn't even consider returning to a solitary mode of doing science. "We paid some overhead, in terms of time spent educating each other," says Kutzbach of the interdisciplinary COHMAP project. "But the payoffs at the end were magnificent."

Elizabeth Culotta is a science writer based in Durham, N.C.