Jose Gonzalez-Vargas
09 Jun 2017

Teamwork in Research Projects

One of the most important things I have learnt during my 10 years as a researcher is to work with others. I have participated in individual projects, small team projects (2-4 people) and large team projects (involving several universities and institutions). I have worked with people from many different parts of the world and had to learn and adapt to different styles of getting things done. Lately, I have also been coordinating small groups that hopefully will lead to very interesting results in the short term.

I also have experienced teamwork in the industry, but teamwork in the scientific community is quite special. I think that we can all agree that most of academic research requires the expertise of different scientific and technological fields to really push the boundaries of knowledge. When trying new things, or testing new ideas, we also need new tools, new methodologies, and different perspectives to achieve a real breakthrough. For example, doing research in the field of Neurorehabilitation Technologies, you need the expertise from neurologist, neuroscientists, and physiotherapists, as well as electronic, mechanical, software, and robotics engineers. All these experts should be able to understand each other when talking about their respective field; something that ends up being quite complicated sometimes. This is very well explained, for other fields as well in this article from 1993

What I have come to learn is that it is never easy to work with others. Even if all the team members are from the same field, or their personalities are similar, one way or another, problems will always arise. Therefore, in my opinion, is important to be prepared to cope with these problems from the start. I think there are two key factors that are needed in any kind of teamwork in research projects: communication channels and open-mindedness.

Having excellent communication channels in a team is a must. However, it is not an easy thing to realise in practice, and the larger the team is, the more complicated it becomes. This is related to the project management experience of the coordinators of the project, but all team members should be on the same page and make an effort to improve communication between them. The usual communication channel in research projects is the always dreaded Meetings.

Meetings are important, but they should be carefully planned and timed. However, the most common complaint between researchers is the amount of boring and useless meetings they have to attend. Even, some researchers shared my perception that sometimes it is more efficient to work during a flight or train rides than it is in their own labs. Therefore, it is important to plan and try different ways for team members to communicate. Industry has the lead on this matter and they have formulated different project management methods to be as efficient as possible in letting everyone knows what they are doing (e.g. SCRUM, or KANBAN). Some people are trying to adapt these methods to the academic world. However, the work culture and the type of teams between industry and academy are quite different and some of these methods might prove to be difficult to adopt. Nevertheless, it is important for any researcher to at least take part in a project management course to have the necessary tools to improve the performance of the teamwork. This is also an interesting article on project management in research projects.

The other factor that plays an important role is open-mindedness. It is important to listen and understand the way other team members do their work and be flexible enough to adapt our own working styles accordingly. Teammates might have different motivations to be involved in the project: some might be very enthusiastic, other are there because they have to. People might have different approaches to a problem: some are fast, some take their time to do things. Also, people, especially from different cultures, perceive words differently. For example, a joke in Spain might be completely misunderstood in Japan, due to culture and language differences. And the opposite is the same, being too silent and non-social might not be welcomed in other places. Furthermore, you cannot expect that people will adapt to you, so you have to take the first step and make the effort to adapt to them. I am not saying that you have to approve and adopt completely how other people do things, forgetting the way you like doing things, but that having an open mind about it will save you plenty of headaches and stress in the long run.

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