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Teams in academia don’t just happen

Despite my confident exterior, I have suffered more than most people I know from performance anxiety during my career. As a veteran of nerves, I can now tell the difference between the rising panic as my presentation slot nears, and the much deeper anxiety that creeps around other tasks – ones that appear on the surface to be much less scary.

There is an inescapable weight of responsibility and expectation that comes with launching a major new research project. This week, this came in the shape of the inception meeting for my new £1.5M Resilient Dairy Landscapes project. Despite writing a highly successful bid, half of the team had never met each other face-to-face before this week, and I knew little of the personalities I would be contending with. The scale and complexity of this project will be the biggest ever test of my leadership abilities.

Determined to get off to a strong start, I took a bold step that I’ve never tried before: I hired a teamwork facilitator for our inception meeting. Sawsan Khuri is not a standard facilitator. As a teamwork trainer who specializes in “systems-thinking” approaches, I was intrigued to see if we could use our first team meeting to explicitly build our team and start thinking in the space between the disciplines in the room. The result was a revelation for me.

Being able to draw on the skills of a seasoned facilitator instantly calmed my nerves, as she helped navigate the necessary detours off our planned agenda. We could focus on the project as Sawsan brought us back on course and on time, making sure everyone stayed on the same path. The meetings she and I had to plan the workshop were more like coaching sessions, enabling me to connect with the deeper purpose of the meeting in addition to the practicalities of starting a new project. As a result, we subtly wove in opportunities for team members to talk about the motives that had brought them to the project, and established a set of values-based principles (patience, openness and mutual respect) upon which we would base our transdisciplinary collaboration. With PowerPoint banned from the meeting, we dove straight into a meeting of minds around the definition of core concepts we would be working with during the project (resilience, sustainability, productivity and interconnectedness).

The activity that worried me most was the one that actually brought us most insight. We were divided into small groups, and given a list of outputs for one of the Work Packages that we were not involved in. Without refreshing our memories from the project proposal (which we wrote half a year ago), our task was to try and imagine how our colleagues might get to those outputs. In part, this was an exercise in empathy, putting ourselves in the shoes of our colleagues to understand the challenges they might face. However, as groups reported back their ideas, it became an invaluable opportunity for each Work Package Leader to think differently about how they might tackle their work. For my Work Package, I discovered an exciting synergy with another project that we will now work alongside for part of our work, and seeing the work through the eyes of my colleagues I saw links to other ideas I’ve been working on separately, which I hadn’t realised could actually feed into this project (they also pointed out a flaw in my planned timings for activities in the Work Package!).

I think as academics we often assume that teams somehow just “happen” when we put a bunch of researchers from different disciplines in a room with non-academic project partners. I think this assumption is based on the fact that so many meetings “happen” in an average academic week, generally without any major incidents. However, if we interrogate how productive, efficient, friendly and deep those conversations typically go, it turns out that we are often basing our belief in teams that just “happen” on shaky assumptions. Academics are not renowned for being team players, and when you throw multiple disciplines and non-academic partners into the mix, it is even more challenging for your meeting to pass off without inefficiency (at best) or negativity (at worst). I had good reason to be nervous, and I’m glad that I was concerned enough to actually try to make this particular team “happen” on purpose. As a result, excitement has now replaced fear as the source of adrenaline driving my leadership of this project, as I start to see what we can achieve together as a team.

I've invited Sawsan to write a blog here to share more of her approach with those of you who are interested. Watch this space...

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