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Lessons from the Lab: How to Make Group Projects Successful

Megacollaboration is becoming the norm in science. Here's what we can learn about what works when working together

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If you’ve ever been a part of a team in a workplace, you know that coordinating with even a single other person can quickly get, well, complicated. Now imagine having hundreds, even thousands of “teammates,” all with a hand in the same project. This kind of megacollaboration is becoming the norm in many scientific fields, as researchers from multiple universities, working in multiple disciplines, living in multiple countries and speaking multiple languages, all appear as co-authors on a single scientific paper. These enormous, and enormously complex, collaborative ventures are known as “team science,” and they in turn have given rise to a new field, the “science of team science,” or identifying what makes large-scale collaborations work. The insights of team science are useful to anyone who has to work with others to get a job done.

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L. Michelle Bennett and Howard Gadlin, both high-level administrators at the National Institutes of Health, recently performed in-depth interviews with members of five teams of NIH scientists — some highly successful, and some decidedly not. The conclusions the authors drew from these interviews, to be published in the Journal of Investigative Medicine next month, point first to the importance of bridging the physical distance between the members of a team. The most successful collaborations, Bennett and Gadlin found, assembled regularly for videoconferences or, better yet, in-person meetings. Such gatherings are essential for building trust and establishing a shared vision of the project, two additional characteristics of effective teams.

A shared language is also key, but by this they mean talking across scientific disciplines. Large-scale collaborations are especially well-suited to tackling “wicked problems” — challenges so difficult and daunting that solving them requires expertise from a number of domains. But individuals participating in interdisciplinary efforts — whether they’re epidemiologists working with geneticists, or salespeople working with the folks in product development — must take care to define their terms and reach agreement on their meanings.

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Other recommendations: choose your team members carefully, with a mix of experienced people and relative newcomers, and try to include at least a few people who have worked together before. “Modularize” the work to be done, breaking it up into distinct chunks that can be distributed among team members — just because you’re working together doesn’t mean each member must have a spoon in every pot. And make sure that the correct incentives are in place: if your teammate’s boss rewards individual achievement but not productive collaboration, it won’t be long before your team falls apart.

Speaking of which: the ability to manage disagreements without letting them rise to personal conflict is another hallmark of successful teams identified by Bennett and Gadlin. And while no one wants to think about it in the exciting early days of a project, joint ventures do often fail — so it’s important for prospective team members to write and sign what Gadlin calls a “prenuptial agreement,” spelling out how responsibilities are to be allocated, how credit is to be awarded — and who gets custody of the work if the collaboration should falter. But by following the guidelines established by the science of team science, collaborators of every kind will have the best possible shot at working happily ever after.

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