Matters of Team Science

Science of Team Science
1st annual conference

Returning home after the Science of Team Science conference, I let concentration go subliminal. Cameron Norman’s brief history of developments in team science over the past few years, and his list of lessons learned/factors contributing to the success of this conference – sifted through my mind, along with conversations I had with two women who are on the ground in terms of dealing with the social in team science. A breadth and depth of wisdom and experience was present at the conference but untapped: not because of deliberate exclusion but due to the inertia of how both “science” and “academia” are typically done.

“The book is blank.”

This quote, from Junot Diaz’ The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007, p. 302), refers to the future. Nothing is fixed, even if the most likely paths are already delimited. The class/status and gender hierarchies evident in the conference’s structure and dynamics do not need to remain barriers to the evolution of team science as a collaborative strategy for collective action capable of addressing and solving wicked problems.

Lessons from group development

A query about Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development roughly midway through the conference was left hanging… other parts of that participant’s question enabled panelists’ response. I wondered, at the time, if any of the panelists were familiar with models of the stages of group development. William Schutz’s sharper view on issues of inclusion, control, and affection adds necessary depth to Tuckman’s introductory-level model, most particularly when combined with the group process dimensions identified by Wilfred Bion. Now, in retrospect, I imagine this instance in the Q&A as a moment when a question back to the audience member would have served the entire conference well.

The storming phase of a group’s development involves a range of existential matters, including:

  • authority/authorization in terms of the roles people perform for the team,
  • individual assessments of worth/value from investing in the team’s group process, the
  • staking-out of allegiances, as well as the
  • identification of threats, and the
  • (possible) emergence of irrational and unreasonable fears.

Most of these dynamics occur below the level of consciousness, either suppressed by politeness or repressed by deep training. Careful attention to patterns and disruptions to patterns in the group’s discourse and dynamics, however, can cue group members to the empirical presence of these unconscious dynamics, opening up opportunities for turning these potentially destructive social forces to operational advantage.

The apparent unanswerability of the question about group development suggests a problematic moment for the group, similar to those that arose later when very specific questions about application found panelists in (what seemed in the moment as) a kind of stunned temporary silence.

Problematics for the Science of Team Science

Science needs an object, and it became clear along the way that the proper target of study for team science remains undefined. In the ambiguity and uncertainty of trying to discover ‘the what’ of team science, ‘the how’ of establishing this object acquires marked significance. Michelle Bennett described this as the need for “teams being recognized as teams…we have experienced it – and are just not ‘talking’ about it.”

Deciding what to measure in & for team science will simultaneously determine which measurements to use. The usual dichotomies pit quantitative versus qualitative, macro against micro; the core question regards what is accepted as empirical evidence. Must one have a sample of thousands in order to produce something-called-knowledge, or can a case study generate and teach at a level of equivalent practical value? Can the discourse of this one conference inform us about the field as a whole? This idea is not far-fetched. When confronted by comparable non-linearity, math-minded scientists and engineers extrapolate, justifying generalizing assumptions in order to scale complex problems down to manageable size.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!

It might sound hokey, but the question came up so many times, Who can help us? And the answer played variations of the same: Hire a facilitator. Find an un-invested moderator. Refer to the research. What about: train ourselves! It would mean

  • adopting an ethic of co-learning,
  • either de-privileging the individual expert or broadening the scope of expertise that is recognized as valuable/necessary, and
  • making ourselves the object of analysis and reflection.

Teresa Woodruff’s statement bears repeating, “It is not that team science is in its infancy, it is that you are learning to work the way that women have always worked.”

Gender is not the whole story, I can name several men working as teammates even if the group’s membership and task is vague. But there may be something to noticing differences in the way men are typically trained in teamwork:  as tightly-knit athletic or military units with a clear and unambiguous objective toward which every member is supposed to equally strive. The boundaries and conditions within which men (in general) learn to identify themselves as part of a team are essentially linear, especially if compared with the constraints and styles by which women tend to identify with others who are moving only roughly in the same direction.

Constructing common ground or a new mental model?

I eavesdropped on a conversation between Stephen Fiore and Maria Scharf as they parsed the difference among the capacities of various team science tools, the diverse uses and interpretations of the uses of these tools, and the processes by which teams in team science might come to understand each other. They made an interesting distinction between “common ground” that is achieved through a process of building a shared vocabulary together over time and the “mental models” of parties to this common ground process – models that may or may not be shared, even though a basic understanding has been forged.

If I was to go out on a limb (or, further out on the one I’ve been crawling along already!), I would diagnose that practitioners and researchers of team science are in a process of constructing common ground. Further, I would prescribe that one way to promote the spread of commonality is to simultaneously generate and popularize a mental model that encourages acknowledgment of relationalism, i.e., of the co-constructed interrelations inherent in the social interaction processes of teaming.

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