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Mega-Collaborations: How Big Teams Can Work 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 mega-collaboration is becoming the norm in many scientific fields, as researchers from multiple institutions, 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," which investigates the factors that make large-scale collaborations work.

The insights of team science are useful to anyone who has to work with others to get a job done. Here, five lessons from the lab:

1. Save big teams for when they're most useful.

In science, and in business, mega-collaborations are increasingly necessary because of the growing specialization of knowledge. The edge of specialized knowledge is where innovation happens -- and then the knowledge of lots of other people from other fields is required to make that potential innovation a reality.

Not only the nature of knowledge, but nature of problems themselves is becoming more complex. Researchers in the science of team science note that mega-collaborations are best suited to what they call "wicked problems" -- fiendishly complicated and difficult challenges, such as mapping the human genome. That undertaking involved teams of scientists from more than 20 laboratories located in six countries (and came in ahead of schedule and under budget). Smaller and simpler problems are more effectively solved by more compact teams, since mega-collaborations come with outsized challenges of coordination, as we'll see next.

2. Ensure that everyone is speaking the same language.

This lesson refers not just to literal language barriers (although in international teams, these can pose challenges too) but to the need for members of big teams to ensure that when they use the same words, they mean the same thing. For example: Scientists involved in the Mouse BIRN projects -- an interdisciplinary mega-collaboration using mouse models to study multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease -- realized early on that they were using different terms to refer to the same regions of the brain. They had to deliberately draw up a common vocabulary to ensure that everyone understood each other with precision.

Individuals participating in such cross-departmental efforts -- whether they're epidemiologists working with geneticists, or salespeople working with the folks in product development -- must take similar care to define their terms and reach agreement on their meanings, perhaps even by compiling a team "dictionary."

3. Carefully manage communication.

L. Michelle Bennett and Howard Gadlin, two 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 results, which they published in the Journal of Investigative Medicine, show that most successful groups assembled regularly for video conferences 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 successful teams.

Bennett and Gadlin found that effective teams were also able to promote disagreement while containing conflict. While many groups shy away from dissent, preferring the warm glow of consensus, it's this sometimes-uncomfortable friction that makes things happen. One way to ensure that disagreement doesn't become disruptive is to establish clear ground rules, spelling out how responsibilities are to be allocated and how credit is to be awarded. The NIH researchers, who liken this kind of contract to a prenuptial agreement, note that it should also cover who gets "custody" of the work if the collaboration should falter.

4. Make the work modular.

Important as it is, communication takes time and effort, especially among people whose workplaces are physically separated. Leaders of mega-collaborations should "modularize" the work to be done, breaking it up into distinct chunks that can be distributed among team members. Tasks that require team members to be "tightly coupled" -- engaged in constant consultation and joint problem-solving -- can then be assigned to people who work in the same location.

Judith Olson, a professor of information and computer sciences at the University of California Irvine and an expert on remote scientific collaboration, shares this experience: "A software development team located in two places, the United States and Mexico, attempted to build a system to assess the manufacturability of an engineering design. Even though there were regular videoconferencing meetings and a lot of e-mail exchange, the project suffered. After a period of struggle, the team redistributed the tightly coupled work to people who were co-located -- giving the algorithm design to one site and the task of populating the database to the other." Following that shift, she notes, the collaboration proceeded smoothly.

5. Hone team-oriented skills.

More and more, teams are the way work gets done, in the business world and in the sciences (one recent study of scientific papers found that over 45 years, team size nearly doubled, from 1.9 to 3.5 authors per paper). From this fact it follows that people should learn the basics of working in teams just as they learn the fundamentals of their particular field. As the organizers of the 2013 Science of Team Science Conference at Northwestern University declared: "As scientists increasingly work together to achieve a common goal, they must become more proficient, not just in the technical and task components of their research, but also the collaborative skills that form the foundation for their science team."

Managing a mega-team is a skill -- one that begins, write NIH scientists Bennett and Gadlin, with self-awareness. Leaders of big teams must be in touch with their own biases and blind spots, their own attitudes and emotions. They can then extend this self-awareness "across the entire team to achieve a shared understanding of the most effective and efficient modes of working together." In a world full of big and complicated problems, we need super-sized teams to solve them.