Large interdisciplinary groups can be designed as either “interdisciplinary teams” or “interdisciplinary multiteam systems.” In the former, there is a single shared goal, whereas in the latter, each team pursues a discipline goal, while working with other teams to achieve a shared system goal. This project explored four factors that affect the functioning and performance of large collectives in science: group design, leadership systems, motivational processes, and remote collaboration.
We created an educational group project in the areas of climate change and clean air and water, and then studied these groups. These challenges require expertise in (a) environmental ecology, (b) attitudes, influence, and social behavior, and (c) innovation management. We linked three university courses at 3 universities: Environmental Ecology, Social Psychology, and Innovation Management. We collected data over 4 academic semesters (13 weeks each). The key findings are fourfold.
Theme 1: Leading interdisciplinary multiteam systems in science
Because of the diversity inherent in science teams, a recurring problem is the lack of alignment and integration across different disciplinary scientists. To overcome this fragmentation, scientific systems need to develop leadership relationships that bridge different groups working on different disciplinary aspects of the overall project. We investigated the personal characteristics that give rise to these bridging leadership relationships. We found personality traits, social skills, and motives of team members affect their likelihood of both leading and following. Stable leader-follower relations form among “leaders” who are socially skilled and “followers” who are agreeable and/or low in motivation to lead. They do not form when “leaders” are lower in social skills and “followers” are conscientious.
Theme 2: Motivating interdisciplinary multiteam systems in science
A persistent challenge for large collectives is maintaining member motivation. We studied the determinants of individuals’ effort allocation to both their disciplinary team and interdisciplinary MTS tasks. Such individual effort and motivation is a fundamental element in fostering success in such collectives. Our research showed that team states such as collective efficacy facilitated a more efficient allocation of individual effort. Also, individual attributes such as personal mastery motives increased effort allocation across the project. Taken together, these findings help elucidate the motivational dynamics operating at the individual level in teams and MTSs engaged in innovation.
Theme 3: Virtual coordination of work in interdisciplinary multiteam systems in science
Given the size and scope of multiteam systems, they are more often than not collaborating at a distance. We investigated the team interaction processes that enable large interdisciplinary systems to collaborate across time and space. This effort included the development of a conceptual taxonomy of teamwork process, the construction and validation of self-report instrument to use to assess these processes and an examination of the nomological network of these work processes in interdisciplinary teams. We found process sociomateriality positively influenced team performance and viability.
Theme 4: Designing the teams who do interdisciplinary science
A signature contribution of this work was to experimentally address the question of how to best structure interdisciplinary work systems: is it better for them to work as fully-integrated interdisciplinary teams, or, should the teams work as relatively isolated components who are loosely coupled with other components? To answer this question, we assigned large interdisciplinary groups to either the “interdisciplinary team” or “interdisciplinary MTS” condition. The major hypotheses of this effort were that the rigor of discipline-based ideas and overall idea novelty would be stronger in the MTSs than in the cross-functional teams. Findings reveal stronger disciplinary rigor and idea novelty result when the group was designed as a MTS than as a cross-functional team. The MTS structure may afford greater depth of idea exploration within different represented disciplines than cross-functional teams.
This work identifies three ways to make large interdisciplinary scientific groups function better: structure them as compartmentalized systems, create leadership systems, and monitor and reinforce effort allocation to the system level, particularly at later stages of the project. These practices can improve the outcomes of public expenditures on science. Our project also contributed to the training of teamwork skills in a large, international community of young scientists, engineers, and managers who took part in the education experience on which this research program was based. Lastly, this project supported the development and training of new PhDs who are now heading up research programs on team functioning in academia and industry. Three dissertations were directly supported by this research, and numerous PhD students and undergraduate students contributed to the dissemination of findings of this research.
- Leslie A. DeChurch, Northwestern University
- Ruth Kanfer, Georgia Institute of Technology
- Stephen Zaccaro, George Mason University
- Lorelei Crerer, George Mason University
- Barthelemy Chollet, Grenoble Ecole de Management
Carter, D.R., Asencio, R., Trainer, H., DeChurch, L.A., Kanfer, R., Zaccaro, S.J. (2018). State of the Science: Best Practices for Working in Multiteam Systems. Handbook of Team-Based Interdisciplinary Health Research Hall, K., Croyle, R., & Vogel, A.
Zaccaro, S.J., Fletcher, L.S., & DeChurch, L.A. (2017). Creativity and Innovation in Multiteam Systems. Team Creativity 1. Roni Reiter-Palmon. Oxford University Press.
Seely, P., DeChurch, L. (2015). Embodied Teamwork: Development and Validation of the Process Sociomateriality Scale.. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Annual Conference. Philadelphia, PA.
Dalrymple, K.M., LoPilato, A., DeChurch, L.A., Kanfer, R., & Zaccaro, S.J. (2017). Interdisciplinary Sensitivity Promotes Communication Across Boundaries. Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology. Orlando FL.
Robotham, K., Gibson, Z., Carter, D.R., Kanfer, R., & DeChurch, L.A. (2016). Origins of synchrony emergence in teams. Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology. Anaheim, CA.
Holland, S., Zaccaro, S.J., & DeChurch, L.A. (2016). Perceptual Disconnects in Leadership Emergence: A Dyadic Approach. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Anaheim, CA.
LoPilato, A., Asencio, R., DeChurch, L.A., Kanfer, R., Zaccaro, S.J. (2016). Team Design & Scientific Innovation: A Quasi-Experiment. Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research. Helsinki, Finland.
Seely, P., DeChurch, L., Zaccaro, S., & Kanfer, R. (2015). The Sociomateriality of Teamwork Processes. In A.P. Giordano & D. Patient (Chairs), Team processes and emergent states: New empirical and theoretical research.. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Annual Conference. Philadelphia, PA.
Twyman, M., DeChurch, L.A., Newman, D., Contractor, N.S. (2016). The Ties that Form Teams: Self-Organization, Homophily, and Multiplexity. Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research. Helsinki, Finland.
Holland, S. J. (2015). Perceptual disconnects in leadership emergence: An integrated examination of the role of trait configurations, dyadic relationships, and social influence (Doctoral dissertation, George Mason University).
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. (SMA 1262474).