Developing Science Teams Form, Storm, Norm, and Perform

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Overcoming complex diseases, from viruses to cancers to mental health and beyond, requires teams of people in a variety of settings. At the NIH IRP, researchers with very different expertise and backgrounds tackle the most difficult biomedical questions by working together.

If you are looking to create or join a scientific team, read the Collaboration and Team Science Field Guide and fill out the forms suggested in the appendix to lay a solid foundation for success.

If you’re planning to engage in team science or collaborations of any sort, keep these four words in mind, as they are what newly organized team members should expect on the road to success: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Each step, outlined below with insights from two leading IRP investigators, is a phase of team development, as originally introduced in the 1960s by Bruce Tuckman (See page 46 of NIH’s Collaboration and Team Science Field Guide). Now, 50 years later, Tuckman’s framework may be even more relevant with the current emphasis on inter- and transdisciplinary research efforts.

Forming

First, admittedly obvious, the team must form. Principal Investigators (PIs) can come together based on shared interests, and they often do join forces around a common vision, such as tackling the obesity epidemic or meeting the challenges of aging. When coalescing around an idea or a possibility, they will together need to formulate the vision. Their shared vision helps launch the team forward and enables them to take their next steps.

The collaboration led by genomicist Dr. Julie Segre and clinical investigator/dermatologist Dr. Heidi Kong is one example of the many highly productive transdisciplinary teams of IRP researchers. Each based in a different NIH institute, they nevertheless work very closely together and have had one combined lab meeting each week for the past 10 years that includes both of their groups.

“Heidi and I have independent missions and visions specific to our own fields,” Dr. Segre says. “Moreover, we have a combined vision to do transformative, high-quality research, to delineate the fungi, bacteria, viruses, and other organisms on human skin and explore their roles in human disease. It helped us that it was a new field. If we acted boldly, we had the opportunity to define the field.”

Teams can also be formed by institutional leadership when a new opportunity emerges, such as the opioid epidemic or a commitment to pediatric research that cuts across many NIH institutes and centers (ICs). The characteristic that most contributes to the success of top-down or bottom-up team formation is having strong support from the organization’s leaders. A unified vision and the commitment to achieve it can assist the team in getting through the other stages of team development.

“Within the NIH, there are people who are intellectual connectors,” Segre says. “A connector will talk to you about your interests and think about the interests of others. They are broadly interested in science, not just their own science. A connector will often then say, ‘This other person is interested in that, you should talk to her.’ Then, you can call her. The most effective way to find collaborations is to talk to people about your ideas very early on, and then they can help you connect with other people to talk with, and so on.”

Storming

The storming phase cannot be skipped — if a team does not pass through it, they will not advance to the next phase of team development. This can be a challenging process for team leaders and participants.

Willingness to disagree and talk about difficult topics within a group of people who might not know each other very well is hard, even when the goal is to develop strong and productive working relationships. Some people see this as an invitation to sit back, watch, and not get involved, in an effort to try to create harmony and minimize the friction among individuals.

Authorship is one topic that can fuel a lot of storming, and there are generally two camps in the debate. On one hand, some researchers firmly believe that authorship cannot be decided until the paper is ready to be written. And on the other, some researchers plead with their leaders to develop authorship criteria for the team that can be applied to every planned paper — and while the project is ongoing, discussions about authorship can happen in parallel.

“Heidi and I worked with Howard Gadlin [co-author of the Collaboration and Team Science Field Guide] and consulted with him as resource for establishing a collaboration,” Segre says. “We both read the Field Guide and had multiple meetings together before writing a collaborative agreement for things like authorship criteria and arbitration. We filled out all the forms and really used it as a blueprint for how to do a team collaboration.”

Developing a team authorship agreement serves several purposes:

  • The team agrees on specific critera for how authorship will be assigned.
  • When team members use the agreement, it generates trust.
  • This important discussion occurs before final decisions need to be made.
  • The agreement preempts difficult discussions where emotions run high.

Storming happens because trust is not yet established, roles and responsibilities are not clear, and how data will be shared is not decided. In addition, there may be different opinions on the best scientific approach or methodology to use, as well as different communication styles or conflict types.

“One of the challenges very early on was sometimes Heidi would tell someone one thing, and then I’d say something different,” Segre says. “I stopped doing that pretty quickly. If a team member came to me after talking with Heidi and asked me something, the first thing I wanted to know was what Heidi said. Then I would either agree with Heidi or say that I would talk to Heidi.”

Dr. Kong concurs. "Since we were used to having our independent research projects, we had to learn to check in with each other for joint projects before committing," Kong says.

If early warning signs are ignored, tensions might escalate to personal attacks, which can irremediably damage the team’s ability to transition to the next phase. Instead of burying the tensions and avoiding conflict, it is critical to develop a strategy for surfacing, naming, and discussing them.

Norming

As the name suggests, norming is where the team really starts to become cohesive. Trusting relationships and team interactions are occurring, roles and responsibilities are becoming clear, the group has established methods for communication and information exchange, and there is growing mutual respect for the varied elements of diversity that have come together to work on the project.

“When you’re collaborating, you have to recognize each other’s independent intellectual contributions,” Segre says. “It’s easiest to see it as Heidi is a dermatologist, and I’m in genomics. Neither of us was doing microbiome research before that. If I’m invited to clinical rounds, I say, that should be Heidi instead. They should be recognizing Heidi. And if Heidi were invited to a genomics meeting, she would probably say, you should invite Julie. She doesn’t decide which genomics techniques we use, and I don’t decide which clinical approaches we use.”

Working in a team, norming is characterized by individual team members taking more responsibility for their unique roles within the team, with less direction by the leader(s). At group meetings where recent results are shared, people are becoming comfortable sharing new data along with their initial interpretations, and accepting of feedback and advice in the spirit in which it is given. Group members are beginning to challenge assertions made by others, often small things at the start and then more substantially as trust solidifies.

"Our partnership is similar to a Venn diagram that has evolved over time,” Kong says. “Not only do Julie and I trust each other to use one's individual expertise with high-quality and ethical approaches in the non-overlapping edges of the Venn diagram, we also have learned a lot from each other so that the shared expertise in the overlapping part of the Venn diagram is expansive. And we respect each other's role and contributions."

Team members also begin to hold each other accountable for their commitments and promises. It is a tentative time, a trust-testing and trust-building time. Successful transition to the Perfoming stage requires shared responsibility for the work that has been cultivated, ability to speak openly and honestly with each other, clear understanding of roles/responsibilities, and, consistent with the name of the phase, fairly well-established group norms.

Performing

As you have probably already guessed, performing is the seemingly magical time when a team’s work hums along smoothly like a well-oiled machine. The collaboration focuses on addressing the science rather than interpersonal conflicts, because team members have worked out their major challenges in getting along. They have developed ways of interacting that support the overall vision for the project and can successfully manage tensions at their earliest stages of development.

“Every paper we’ve ever published feels that way to me,” Segre says. “I think we’ve both achieved so much more than we could have ever done alone. Every paper we did — what are the communities of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live on the skin — we wanted to make it the highest quality and be the first ones to publish it, so that ours would be used as the reference data set.”

The goal in performing is to sustain an environment where people can collide productively, challenge results, and suggest different interpretations of data in the spirit of moving the research forward.

Sometimes, a new wave of storming can fluster a team. After a change in team membership (additions and/or departures), most teams will storm again. For example, it is common to see storming resurface after a new postdoc is added to an ongoing project. The storming phase may be exacerbated if the new team member has a distinct disciplinary/scientific background, a different cultural origin, or if the PI/lab chief’s preferred method of conflict resolution is avoidance.

“Read the Field Guide for team science, and actually create those documents,” Segre says. “If you create them in advance and talk about these things, it’s so much easier to deal with the difficulties as they arise, resolve conflict, and assign responsibility. Referring back to those documents can diffuse tension and keep efforts focused on core values rather than responding to the situation.”

Simply having a vocabulary for the storming phase and knowing it is part of a healthy team development process can benefit team leaders and participants. It provides for common language to talk about a complex time in the team’s development and lays the foundation for getting through it more quickly, so everyone can spend more time on the science — which is why we are all here in the first place.

Category: Collaboration