Got Team?

Got Team? Creating Championship Science

by Alan Saltiel, LSI Director

OK, I admit it. I’m a sports junkie. The first thing I do in the morning is read the sports section in the paper, and once or twice a day I glance at to check out the latest scores and rumors. I rarely miss a game of my favorite college basketball team. While working at home I have a game on the TV as background, and I’m a sucker for almost any sports movie. Worst of all, I constantly use sports clichés and metaphors (often mixed) to weigh in on almost everything.  

The thing is, many of the principles that guide me in science were learned in sports. Besides the obvious things like hard work, consistency, awareness, preparation, opportunism, persistence, etc, the one precept that really sticks out is the central role of teamwork. While this is a given in sports, it is not a central tenet of scientific discovery.

It should be. The results brought by teamwork are indisputable, as is the excitement and personal fulfillment. But how do you get scientists to work together? I have pondered this question often during my ten years in industry and sixteen years in academia as a leader and member of different kinds of scientific organizations. Deep discussions I’ve had with leaders in industry and academia, and not just in the life sciences, always come back to the same dilemma, the tension between the “I” and the “We", and the likelihood of tipping too far to one side or the other. I’ve concluded that creating a culture of innovative discovery depends critically on achieving the right balance, and developing a value system where this tension is minimized, so that the “I” exists in harmony with the “We".

This is easier said than done. In industrial settings, the heavy emphasis on the team as a vehicle for all goals and accomplishments is often coached to the extreme. I’ve seen that the constant harping on team-oriented behavior in the name of unselfishness can reduce the team’s output to what might be expected at the lowest common denominator. More attention is often paid to process and order than to creative problem solving. Challenges or new ideas can be seen as threats to the status quo, and creative individuals can be labeled as troublemakers, who aren’t “team players”. The imaginative and innovative minds head for the hills!

In the Academy, teams form for recruiting, assessments of faculty for promotion, developing curricula—everything but research. Why is this? The reasons are many: there is no incentive for academic scientists to collaboratively plan discovery programs; the funding system is largely based on individual applications; promotion depends on individual accomplishment, and we prize our individual freedom— accepting no limits or boundaries on what we hope to do in the lab. Or so we think. By living in our own labs, focused solely on our own way of doing things, we remain unchallenged and firmly within our personal comfort zones.

Are we missing something? Yes. Our reward and incentive systems actually discourage scientists from planning experiments together and in the process, prevent the kind of synergy that allows us to make real breakthroughs. Is there a way to bring together scientists without squelching their creative instincts? When we formed the LSI, we presented recruits with a pointed question: how do you feel about being immersed with folks who are outside your scientific discipline? Those who failed to grasp the importance of this question were passed over and as a consequence, we’ve accumulated a group of outstanding scientists to whom collaboration is more than a word, who understand the excitement of challenging themselves outside their usual sphere.

We recently convened a mini-retreat in which we looked both forward and back over the past eight years. I asked everyone to first identify their own individual values as faculty members (those associated with the “I”), and then the values they associated with the Institute (the “We”). Here are the results:

What did we learn from this exercise?  Firstly, just about all of our entire faculty got it. They were able to identify the values, both individual and collective, that drew them together, and recognized the benefits of membership in the LSI. They were aware that a great team produces benefits for the individual, and that individuals who value those benefits make great teammates. Importantly, these individuals don’t contribute to each other’s work out of a sense of altruism; rather they value the benefits they receive by being a part of the larger group. They understand where the LSI takes them, and that teamwork fuels the opportunity to be part of something greater, more effective and capable of bigger breakthroughs.

I also saw the strong sense of pride specifically associated with being part of a great team. Teammates feel like winners because they gravitate to other winners, challenge each other and together develop a championship culture (whoops- another sports metaphor!). And then there is that burst of dopamine you get when you know you’ve just done or learned something that you never would have done or learned on your own.

We are starting to form some smaller research teams now around specific problems in biology, bringing together groups of five to seven faculty from different areas to take a multifaceted approach. The team will guide the research, allocate resources, design experiments, and analyze and interpret the data together. I am hopeful and excited to see our progress.

 August 2010