Published March 15, 2021
“Complex problems require complex solutions.”
— Ekaterina I. Noyes, PhD, MPH, Division of Health Services Policy and Practice, Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, School of Public Health and Health Professions; UB Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) Team Science Core Director
UB CTSI Team Science Core Director Ekaterina I. Noyes, PhD, MPH, made the preceding quote in a November 2019 CTSI Translational Spotlight feature in which she outlined team science — which refers to the theory, principles, and strategies of teamwork, such as interdependency, psychological safety, effective communication, and coordination — and its impact on healthcare research. (Read here for more background on team science theory and practice.) Noyes described it as a type of research in which interdisciplinary investigators work together on a project that none can complete without the help of others. One of the tasks of the CTSI’s Team Science Core, she explained, was to work with investigators to ensure that team members work together more efficiently and effectively to promote creativity and innovation.
Just a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly impacted the world. Suddenly, many of the concepts discussed in that article — breaking down communication barriers, working collaboratively with experts from diverse disciplines, embracing differing methods and approaches — became part of everyday life for many.
“The science of interdisciplinary teamwork predicted all that,” Noyes says. “What we are seeing is basically the theory of teamwork in real-life conditions. The fundamental difference between 2019 and 2021 is that in 2019, for most people, team science and teamwork was a theory. Two years forward, we are all living in it.”
Why some teams were better able to handle impacts of the pandemic
Groups in diverse fields — not only healthcare — that already implemented team science strategies, Noyes says, continued working successfully during COVID.
“If you used remote teams before, or if you already planned resources allocation and communication and data sharing with your team, nothing changed,” she says. “You just continued with the same expectations, rules and regulations, and people were very comfortable. Several of my colleagues reported being extremely productive, because while everybody was struggling and pulling their hair out, they were home working very effectively in a productive work environment.”
One reason some groups have struggled is the loss of the natural, in-person connection with others.
“You no longer meet people at the coffee machine,” Noyes says. “So, when do you meet with them? When do you discuss? You have to schedule, and that routine was not developed. Those groups that did not explicitly negotiate all of the phases of team development had to do it very, very quickly in the beginning of the switch to remote work — and it was painful. Learning and the change of the status quo is very painful.”
Challenges, misconceptions, and hesitancies
Why had some groups already gravitated toward team science, while others had not? As Noyes explained in the 2019 article, one factor is the many challenges in implementing team science practices. These include communication barriers and logistical issues, along with — for researchers — the difficulties in finding outlets to publish multidisciplinary research. People’s attitudes toward teams, and belief that teams are not always needed, is another. (See here for more on this concept.) There is also the matter of overcoming decades of perception.
“One of the main reasons, at least in academia and biomedical sciences, is that many of the current opinion leaders were trained at the time when team science was perceived as a weakness,” Noyes says. “So, 30 years ago, the gold standard for finishing your PhD was to become an independent investigator, which means that you alone can make all the decisions involving hiring, firing, and planning. It was a myopic concept, because in reality nobody operated that way. Even department chairs have strong back office teams.”
CTSI Team Science Specialist Elizabeth Bengert often explores the misconceptions around team science. One frequent issue she encounters is that people assume they know how to work on a team.
“Everyone thinks that they know how to do it,” Bengert explains. “But working with people does not necessarily mean that you are on a team. You have to have the interdependency and the shared mental model, vision, and goals. You have to rely on one another in order to get your task or goal completed. Working on the same project does not mean that you have been working together on the same project.”
How teams form, and why
Before COVID, Noyes says, team science and teamwork was useful for those who do it for living, and for the small group of academic researchers for whom this is the main target of that work.
However, she explains, “the applications of team science were completely opaque to a lot of other people who, by nature of their work, never had to do it specifically.”
For many, team involvement happens organically. Teams of friends or acquaintances form naturally over time, a luxury not available in most workplaces.
“In work, we cannot wait for the team to form or not to form,” Noyes says. “We need to perform, so we sometimes accelerate that team formation. In surgical teams, they have five minutes for the team to gel before they have to start operating on the patient. They don't have time to ask, ‘Is this team going to come together?’ It had better, because patients need to be cured.”
What allows team formation to accelerate, then, is understanding the science behind successful teamwork — and embracing one key element: the possibility of discomfort.
“People often think that teamwork at work is to make you feel comfortable and making friends,” Noyes says. “It has nothing to do with making friends. Teamwork at work is for making you efficient and innovative, so you are able to complete a project on time and generate new ideas. Being a successful member of a team requires learning how to disagree professionally, solve those disagreements and negotiate a joint plan of action that aligns with the goal for which the team was developed.”
Bengert adds that “too much comfort combined with low accountability is bad for teamwork. However, feeling safe to disagree and express your opinion combined with accountability leads to greater creativity and innovation.” One of the best strategies to improve psychologic safety and accountability in teams is to debrief frequently, not just at the project’s end. By developing a culture of sharing observations on what worked well (instead of blaming others for failures), feeling free to suggest better alternatives, reinforcing shared goals, correcting course when necessary, and celebrating success, team members can improve their personal teamwork skills while addressing team goals.
As understanding of team science grows, as well as recognition of its benefits during the pandemic, so does its use at UB. Watch for an upcoming CTSI article featuring insights from two UB researchers who successfully and frequently implement team science in their work.