Academic Teams

November 24, 2007

Academic history is replete with examples of great team work, leading to seminal breakthroughs. But some research partnerships (pairs) are very long-lasting. Its always made me curious as to what underlies these successful marathon work relationships. One such research pair comprised my Ph.D. committee and another resides in my department. So I have been priviliged to witness first-hand the workings of such teams. Here are some of the characteristics that appear to be common to these collaborations.

  1. These partnerships are forged early in the career life-cycle. I am hard-pressed to think of pairs that came together well after both people had made their marks and completed seminal work. Of course, this raises the interesting question as to whether the individuals would have been more successful on their own rather than as a team. Who knows? The fact that they did eventually also make their individual marks does not resolve whether the initial burst of seminal work would have come were it not for teamwork.
  2. The initial relationships are unlikely to have been based on the common research interest. Every team I know has some stronger non-research based reason for its existence. Its often times common alma maters, advisors, extra-curricular interests, nationality, vices, etc. But not similar personalities! Every team is something of an odd couple. Were it only research interests, most likely it would not have worked. Were it similar personalities, it would most certainly have been dead in the water.
  3. Teams spend a lot of time in “bonding” activity, even when the relationship matures over time. Its easily postulated that with time, common interests develop, leading to the team spending more time outside of research, but with a feedback loop into the work relationship becoming better and better over time.
  4. The skills of the team members appear to be complementary and are really poor substitutes for each other. Of course, this is how it should be. I have noticed work collaborations where people’s skills were similar, devolving into subtle disagreements about minor and highly similar points of view. In short, much ado about nothing. In complementary skills settings, each member remains the master of their domain, eliminating debilitating intra-team turf battles.
  5. The stylistic differences of team partners is often quite obvious. For example,

    • Writing: pedantic versus light, humorous.
    • Orientation: Theoretical vs empirical.
    • Attention: Big picture vs detail-driven.
    • Audience: Academic oriented vs practitioner oriented.
    • Personality: Extroverted vs introverted. One a showman, the other lying low.
    • Training: oftentimes both team members come from very different original disciplines.

  6. Strong teams overcome adversity and difficult periods. They stand together and solve unforeseen problems, and never indulge in the blaming of each other. Its a fair collective.
  7. Good teams are always characterized by fairness in sharing work and balanced in taking credit. Such teams almost work too hard to be egalitarian within the team. But its this aspect of these teams that makes the team what it is. In some cases, this works so well that readers of their research area often believe that the team is but one person.
  8. Good teams tend to have ideas generated by both members. Sometimes a paper is predominantly the idea of one, and sometimes its the other. The outsider may easily identify the work of each player in the team, but not which of the two had the original idea for the work. For instance, when one team mamber is a theorist and the other an empiricist, its easy to knwo who did what, but not necessarily easy to know where the idea came from. Hence, good teams are rarely the outcome of adisor/advisee relationships. They may start out that way, but their long-term existence is dependent on the source of intellectual ideas becoming blurred to the outside reader.
  9. Good teams do not always work together with no break. Of course, there are exceptions. But teams do tend to go through periods of detachment, followed by renewed teamwork. Many times, the resuscitation of the team comes with their work taking on an entirelynew direction, which is also the hallmark of a good team. Its not usually stuck in the same rut.
  10. Good teams retain individual style and identity. No matter how blurred together the joint work becomes, each member continues to work on other projects with others as well. This is the interesting thing about academia. Most of these team characteristics, might also apply to a good marriage. Except this last one, for whereas academic promiscuity might be enhancing to team worth, one would hardly claim this to be true of marriages.

Will we see more such partnerships as collaborations become easier with the enabling connectivityof the web? Or will the ability to work with anyone in fact make it less likely to work often with just one? Hard to say. There is something exciting about being in a team and fighting for limited journal space. And certainly, it is not the intellectual partnership but the sociology of it that is most intereresting.