Collaboration in Research - Part 1: Roles before Tools

Photo by Rawpixel/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Rawpixel/iStock / Getty Images

Robert made an excellent point about some of the challenges of research workflows. He noted that in his industry, people tend not to use tools, which can cause huge delays. This can be especially frustrating in his field, where drugs are not able to get FDA approval because of poor execution.

Let me start by noting that I am not and expert on team dynamics and organizational systems; I’m just a guy who tries to get stuff done, and sometimes I have to work with others. That said, I think that evaluating a team’s approach to planning and execution can be a valuable endeavor.

Thinking of Teams as Organizations

Let’s agree that it would be odd for a company to hire an entire staff that were all tasked with the same functions. If a software company, for example, asked all members to do coding, marketing, accounting, and HR, things would likely break down quickly. We would expect that the organization would parse out responsibilities in reference to individual strengths, and maximize those for the organization’s benefit.

But when groups of researchers gather to work together, we tend to have a shared set of skills. In fact, we should have a shared set of skills. I would be very uncomfortable handing over decisions on methodology to one person or group of people; I’d want to have some level of influence on the methodological approach of the research. I was recently a part of a team where some members felt insecure about their methodological skill-set. To be honest, I think the work suffered as a consequence. Research teams need to be comprised of people who are good at research; and while some may have strengths in specific areas, all need to have a working knowledge of the entire process.

That said, there very well may be some soft-skills that can be distributed according to strengths. Perhaps not every member of the team needs to be able to organize the team. Some may be better communicators, while others may be more inclined to work deeply in isolation. There may be members who are able to focus on the objective, while others are more focussed on the process. Here are ways to think about the organization…

Identify the Roles: Instead of parsing out segments of the research itself, think about identifying the soft-skills that are necessary for the team to progress. If your team is going to work together for a longer period of time, it may be worth the effort to use something like Belbin’s Team Roles or CliftonStrengths to formalize those roles. For more ad hoc teams, some examples of roles that I’ve found useful are…

  1. Project Planner - This person is responsible for mapping out the project, its timelines, the tasks, and the resources for the work. The planner is able to show the group where we are in the process, and think strategically about how to leverage time, resources, and the personnel to reach the objective.
  2. Communicator - This person is responsible for keeping the group - and the individual members of the group - informed about deliverables. The communicator is someone who is able to say, “Scott, we need your analysis on Wednesday.” The communicator is assertive, constructive, relational, and emotionally intelligent.
  3. Organizer - This person is happy to clean up the messes, and set things in place for future work. The organizer is someone who doesn’t mind cleaning data, renaming files to a naming-convention, or keeping the digital space neat and tidy. A great organizer is one who can leverage tools (and even set up automation) to make it easier for the entire team to find what they’re looking for.
  4. Go-Getter - This person is the fearless member who seems to always be itching for the next opportunity: the next publisher, the next conference, the next project, the next research question. The go-getter is the driven optimist who thinks futuristically, and isn’t afraid to shoot an email to a conference organizer to suggest that all six members of your research team should keynote at the next meeting.
  5. Wrapper - This person is the one who helps the team decide when enough is enough. Research teams can drag on and on; there’s always more to see, almost more to write, always more to analyze. Having a member whose job it is to say, “That’s a wrap” can be very helpful to the team.

Team Size Matters: In research teams that are small (2-4 people), individual members may need to play more than one of these roles. As teams get larger, it may be oppressive to ask the Planner to be the Go-Getter AND the Communicator AND the organizer. As teams increase in size, parsing out the roles becomes increasingly important.

Thinking of Tools in Terms of Roles

So far, we’ve not discussed tools. There’s a reason for this: the tool for organizing project, or communication, or organization, should start with the person who fills that role. If the organizer really works best in a Google Team drive, why not let the organizer work in Google Team drives? If the communicator believes that Slack is better than email, then the communicator should choose the platform.

Next time, I’ll suggest several tools that may help those who want fill some of these roles.

Posted on February 13, 2018 and filed under General.