Facilitating Innovation in Interdisciplinary Teams: The Role of Leaders and Integrative Communication

Maritza Salazar, Theresa Lant
Informing Science: The International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline  •  Volume 21  •  2018  •  pp. 157-178

The complexity of scientific problems has spurred the development of transdisciplinary science, in which experts are brought together to collaborate across disciplinary and practice boundaries. These knowledge diverse teams can produce novel solutions, but they often fail to achieve their potential.

Leaders have a crucial role to play in enabling effective collaboration among these diverse experts. We propose that a critical predictor of whether a newly formed interdisciplinary team will perform well is the leader’s multidisciplinary breadth of experience, which we define as a leader’s possession of significant experience in multiple areas of research and practice. We suggest that these leaders will have the capability to skillfully manage the interactions within the team.

We test our prediction in a sample of 52 newly formed interdisciplinary medical research teams. We also observe and examine the communication patterns in a subset of these teams.

There is a lack of systematic study of the impact leaders have on newly formed interdisciplinary science teams whose members have little or no prior collaborative experience with each other, possess specialized knowledge, and have limited overlapping expertise. This study combines quantitative and qualitative methods to examine the effect of leader multidisciplinary experience on team communication patterns and innovation.

Our study finds that teams are more innovative when their leader has a moderate breadth of multidisciplinary expertise. Exploration of team communication patterns suggests that leaders with moderate multidisciplinary breadth of experience actively stimulated information sharing across expert domains by choosing cross-cutting topics and drew individuals’ attention to the knowledge and approaches of others in the team.

Insights from this work can have practical implications regarding how to best select and train leaders to facilitate cross-boundary collaboration in transdisciplinary science. This study elucidates a variety of communication strategies that leaders can to enhance the team innovativeness.

Further investigation into the underlying psychological states that these communication strategies elicit is needed. Future research should investigate psychological mediators such as knowledge consideration, perspective taking, and cognitive flexibility.

Transdisciplinary science is needed to solve society’s most complex problems. The more insight we gather about factors that can help these knowledge diverse teams to be successful, but more society will benefit.

More research is needed on team formation, leader experience, and team outcomes in transdisciplinary science teams in a variety of contexts.

interdisciplinary teams, multidisciplinary breadth of experience, team innovation
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