by Sumana Banerjee
Bitten by the Marvel bug, I wasted no time to catch a showing of Avengers: Infinity War before the spoilers started filling my social media timelines. This post obviously does not contain any spoilers-but rather shares how a cool movie like Avengers made my brain think of some research project oriented lessons.
Working for DECCMA has trained me to be attuned to the mention of themes related to environmental change, sustainability, and resource use. So when Thanos shared his grand vision of salvaging the universe from overpopulation which leads to resource scarcity, I was all ears for this Marvel villain. The SDGs started flashing in my mind as some could be realised by his grand vision (after some thought I feel at least these would apply – 2 for Zero Hunger, 12 for Responsible Consumption and Production and 13 for Climate Action). Before I could finish counting the SDGs, Thanos revealed his strategy to implement his vision, which was to kill half the universe! It goes without saying that our proposed strategies in DECCMA are very different to his…
This was clearly playing on my mind, and it was much later when it struck me that I have encountered glimpses of Thanos in people when it comes to teamwork and the linkages between grand visions and implementation plans. I surely do not mean that the team members wanted to kill off half the universe-or the team for that matter. But in the real world of research projects, teams must manage competing priorities, worldviews and disciplinary training of their members in order to build consensus on how to achieve common goals. In other words – the grand vision is achieved by collectively defining the implementation plan.
Effective teamwork and leadership often have the “five C’s” where character, competency, chemistry, compatible vision, and capacity feature. All these C’s are integral to any kind of teamwork and external efforts can improve these, with the exception of character. For a change in character, it has to be internally-motivated and enabled. Since research teams often have young researchers, it may be worthwhile to share good practices which can help build the character necessary for effective (and enjoyable!) teamwork. It is important for leaders and senior researchers to instill in the young members the importance of the following –
Talking, and more importantly listening, will help in exchange of perspectives, problem-solving, and generation of new ideas. Scheduling formal or informal meetings, depending on the work culture, amongst researchers can facilitate better work. As researchers it is important to understand that the concept of “hearing all voices” and gender sensitivity should not be limited to talking to more women in a stakeholder workshop. Just like charity begins at home, it is important to apply these principles in the team environment, providing a space that welcomes and actively encourages all voices within the team irrespective of sex, seniority, background and profile.
It is a good practice to acknowledge the support of anyone who has positively contributed to help your work. Academic papers are the core currency of research careers, and authorship should reflect contributions. In DECCMA we follow Vancouver rules, which state that people should only be named as authors when they have contributed substantively to the conceptualisation and research design or execution and at least some part to the writing. Vancouver rules partly address implicit norms in some research environments, where there is an expectation that being senior in age and position warrants being named as an author, regardless of (lack of) contribution. It may be good to keep in mind that naming authors in outputs is not akin to signing a greetings card where everybody’s name should be there! Instead acknowledgements are there to appreciate efforts that enabled the work to happen without direct inputs – for example funders are usually (gratefully) acknowledged.
Publications are the end of a research process in which acknowledgement is also important, and often overlooked. For example it is good practice to acknowledge the support of people who enabled fieldwork and research to take place – which includes those involved in organisation as well as those interviewees and survey participants that provided the data to analyse. It is also important to understand the difference between support and contribution.
Dealing with disappointment
Working in teams often involves many members applying to the same conferences but not all who applied get selected. In such cases, researchers should put aside any individual disappointment and rather be glad for the recognition that comes from being part of the team whose research is profiled.
Teams are composed of people with different backgrounds and, increasingly, from different countries – such that interdisciplinary teams are often an eclectic mix. This creates exciting opportunities for appreciating different worldviews and expertise. However, the flip side of this is that conflicts can arise relating to the respective norms and behaviours that are constructed in different contexts. It should always be kept in mind that everybody has something to offer and the more we try to learn from the positives, the more we grow as individuals. If a conflict over an issue carries on, it is best to let it rest for a while and then come back to it with a fresh perspective.
Without this getting too preachy, I would like to end this on a positive note. Thanos had concerns which echo the reality of our current world, but what made him the bad guy was his proposed way of implementing his vision, not the vision itself. The thought of killing half the universe just because he acquired the power was not only autocratic and heinous also the easiest thing to do. How I wish Peter Parker could tell him – “With great power comes great responsibilities.” In research teams we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to come up with more effective implementation plans for the same vision of a better world.