Leading large transdisciplinary projects

Tools and Methods

What’s required to lead exceptionally large projects involving many dozens of participants from various scientific disciplines (including biophysical, social, and economic), multiple stakeholders, and efforts spanning a gamut from discovery to implementation? Such projects are common when investigating social-ecological systems which are inherently complex and large in spatial and temporal scales. Problems are commonly multifaceted, with incomplete or apparently contradictory knowledge, stakeholders with divergent positions, and large economic or social consequences.

This blog is reproduced from the Integration and Implementation Insights blog, where it was the most popular blog of 2018.

Leaders of such very large projects confront unique challenges in addition to those inherent to directing interdisciplinary efforts:

  1. the sheer number of participants, interactions, activities, and interrelated objectives requires efficient and well thought out management structures and procedures
  2. the types of collaborations required simultaneously within the project can be diverse, including those that might be considered disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, and they entail interactions that change throughout the project life cycle. This requires the capacity to understand the different disciplines well enough to guide their integration as the project matures
  3. directors of such projects are the liaison with stakeholders, policymakers, the general public, donors, institutions and the media.

Much of the literature on team science emphasizes principles over the day-to-day operations, and does not directly address issues that come with larger scale projects. Rather, the nature of these challenges, and approaches to addressing them, are often discovered “in the saddle” by project directors. A pragmatic guide is needed. To this end, a group of successful directors of large socio-environmental-systems-focused projects participated in a workshop hosted by SESYNC (the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in the USA) and produced a practical guide (Eigenbrode et al., 2017). To provide a taste of the issues covered, we share our conclusions about the personal attributes of a successful director, which are detailed in Section 1 of the guide.

Qualities and skills of a high-functioning director

The director must own and nurture a shared vision for the project within the project team. This requires building and coalescing disparate members that bring a variety of strengths and perspectives to the project. In addition, to effectively bring stakeholders into the team effort, the director will need to continually communicate the project vision to outside parties who have a variety of interests and agendas.

Three primary areas require consideration: career status, qualities and skills.

Career status involves:

  • sufficient seniority in your organization, ie., being fully established in your career
  • an established network of colleagues to provide the basis for building a highly functioning team
  • “broad shoulders”, ie., the ability to take on large and diverse responsibilities across the breadth of the project.

Qualities involves the ability to:

  • Earn the respect of team members of varying professional levels, disciplines, backgrounds, interests
  • Work with transparency towards your actions and knowledge
  • Be flexible in your ideas and methods
  • Find humor in your mistakes
  • Have thick skin to withstand the criticism of others
  • Be unflappable by a continual set of hurdles that are put in your path
  • Accept successes and praise with humility.

Skills are required in four areas:

  1. Leadership – there are many forms and styles that will work as long as they bring out the best in others to develop an effective collaborative and interdisciplinary project
  2. Knowledge – about the project as a whole, which requires interest in the general goals and objectives of the project and expanding your knowledge within and outside your own discipline
  3. Attitude – that respects the role and contributions of every member, regardless of discipline and academic levels (staff, students, peers, adjuncts, etc), as well as the value of non-academic stakeholders and collaborators
  4. Communication – fostering internal team communications and externally represent the project and its participants. This requires willingness to listen to the input of others and encourage diverse idea exchanges, as well as seeking opportunities to make the work of the project and team members known beyond the project.

These are summarized as a list of take-away messages in the table below.

(Source: Eigenbrode et al., 2017)

What has your experience been either in leading or working with a leader in a large transdisciplinary project? Do our suggestions gel with yours? Do you have additional or different lessons to share?

Eigenbrode, S. D., Martin, T., Morton, L. W., Colletti, J., Goodwin, P., Gustafson, R., Hawthorne, D., Johnson, A., Klein, J. T., Mercado, L., Pearl, S., Richard, T., and Wolcott, M. (2017). Leading large transdisciplinary projects addressing social-ecological systems: A primer for project directors. Online: https://www.sesync.org/leading-large-transdisciplinary-projects-addressing-social-ecological-systems; or, https://nifa.usda.gov/resource/leading-transdisciplinary-projects

The primer has nine sections: Qualities and Skills of a High Functioning Director, Molding your Team, Creating a Culture of Collaboration, Enabling Participant Success, Supporting the Next Generation of Researchers, Building High Performance Teams, Designing and Managing the Project, Cultivating Partner and Stakeholder Relationships, Garnering Institutional Resources and Support.

Biography: Sanford D. Eigenbrode, Ph.D., directed “Regional Approaches to Climate Change for Pacific Northwest Agriculture” (2011-2018), a $20 million US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture sponsored transdisciplinary project that involved scientists and students from three universities and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. An entomologist whose disciplinary research focuses on agroecology and chemical ecology, he also has a strong interest in interdisciplinary communication and leadership. He was a cofounder of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative. He is University Distinguished Professor at the University of Idaho, currently on sabbatical at Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) – Europe Switzerland, that includes facilitating communication in a large CABI-led project addressing woody invasive weeds in eastern Africa.

Biography: Lois Wright Morton, Ph.D., directed the US Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture funded Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project from 2011 to 2017. This $20 million transdisciplinary project encompassed scientists and students from 11 institutions, farmer cooperators, a highly engaged advisory board, and 35 experimental research sites in the upper Midwest of the US. A rural sociologist in the Department of Sociology at Iowa State University, USA, her research includes civic structure, social connections and human dimensions of natural resource management, water quality, agricultural management and long term weather, and rural communities.

Biography: Tim Martin, Ph.D., directed the “Pine Integrated Network: Education, Mitigation and Adaptation Project”, a 5-year, $20 million climate change Coordinated Agricultural Project which was funded by US Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture to generate and disseminate science to support the sustainable management of planted southern pine in a changing climate. The project involved 50 co-principal investigators at eleven different south-eastern US land grant universities and the US Forest Service. He is a Professor of Tree Physiology at the University of Florida, where he co-directs the Forest Biology Research Cooperative, a collaborative consortium between corporate forest managers and the university.

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