‘In a team, you make way for the greater good’

The future of science lies with teams. Whether that is true is by no means a foregone conclusion, but we are firmly committed to embedding the importance of collaboration and equality in the academic community. How? Here, we highlight two practical examples, a serious game and two different Team Science Awards.

Using a game

Team science and the Recognition & Rewards programme are part of the ‘Shaping 2030’ strategy programme at the University of Twente (UT). “We need to prepare our organisation for a different type of person”, says Shaping 2030 programme manager, Leontien Kalverda. “Complex problems and global crises require flexible working forms, with the network as the point of departure. A single boss who decides everything is no longer a realistic option.”

Kalverda’s department started 14 pilots on teamwork 2 years ago. “We took the teams on a customised programme for three months, with extensive interview cycles tailored to their issues. This meant that they had to be open to change and recognise that long-term investment is needed for serious qualitative steps to be taken.”

One of the tools she finds very successful is the UT Strategy Game, developed specially for UT. “To my surprise, we managed to create a game that is very similar to the university in terms of projects, complex situations and the social playing field. During the game, you encounter circumstances that are exactly the same as those you come across in practice.”

‘Moment’ for reflection

The UT Strategy Game helps people get a feel for the university’s core values and how to make use of them in daily practice. You have to win impact points and faculty points. The game challenges your team skills and strategic insight. “If a project requires certain qualities, you can only solve it together.”

‘As it turned out, they only went for their own task, which was a moment for reflection’

Kalverda says she played the game with the strategy department’s programme management team, among others. “You would think people with such a job profile would have open minds and go for results for the whole university. As it turned out, they only went for their own task, which was a moment for reflection. Not many people automatically take a helicopter view. That task emerges nicely from the game.”

Moreover, there are layers in the game that surface with some types of audience, but not with others. “We noticed that HR people played the game in a much more role-conscious way than, for example, the academics”, says Kalverda. “Academics ignored the roles and did everything together, while HR colleagues made sure they listened to ‘the professor’ in the game.” Ultimately, it is about connecting more effectively with the overall strategy and ‘what this means for you and how you work in a team’.

Together with the HR department, Kalverda mapped out the 14 pilots, which will be available as ready-to-use tools with instructions on the local intranet. The UT Strategy Game takes one-and-a-half to two hours to complete. “It is very useful as a warm-up for an offside retreat.”

In practice

The teams that Marien de Jonge, professor of Infection and Immunity and head of the medical immunology laboratory at Radboud University Medical Center, oversees work according to the principle that everyone has their role in the greater whole and each component is there for a reason. “Take the analysts”, says De Jonge. “They are the backbone of the laboratory. Without them, you can come up with all kinds of hypotheses, but if you can’t test them, you’ve got nothing.”

As far as De Jonge is concerned, the scientific team in the academic world is still too much of an ‘understudy’. He worked in the business world for a while and experienced ‘how important’ it is to invest a lot of time in a team. “People have to commit to a common goal. It takes time to learn to speak the same language.”

As a supervisor, De Jonge struggles with the dilemma that people in the academic world have to consider their CVs on the one hand and have to serve group interests on the other. “I sometimes feel like I’m dealing with a wheelbarrow full of frogs who all want to jump in a different direction”, he says, but he understands everyone’s primary focus on their individual career. “After all, it is also something you are judged by”. However, he also adds that “you can only do well together if you divide the tasks fairly in such a way that everyone is left with enough room to pursue their own ambitions as well. I guarantee that the balance is right for everyone.”

‘Costs come before the benefits’

In his department, the academics have divided the overall package into patient care, research and teaching. Everyone takes on two of the three subjects. “If team members point out to me that they are more entitled to research because they are bringing in money and others are not, I make it clear that the costs come before the benefits. Which also means that you make room for new ideas that do not immediately generate much fundings. By mutual agreement of course”, says De Jonge. His department also distributes individually obtained funds at the central level of RadboudUMC. “That certainly does require a great deal of solidarity. But if that approach does not suit you, you have to wonder whether you fit in with us. Sometimes, it comes down to making way for the greater good, only to go full steam ahead yourself later.”

‘I sometimes feel like I’m dealing with a wheelbarrow full of frogs who all want to jump in a different direction.’

De Jonge likes to have all his cards on the table. Even when people are not happy. “I keep asking until I’m sure agreement has really been reached.” Can he say his approach is effective? “We are a very friendly group. We hardly have any disagreements, and people also do things together outside work. I think that means that it works. Empathy is perhaps more important than we think.”

Investing across the board

Let’s look at another example. Some scientific organisations naturally have collaboration in their DNA. The Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) in the University of Technology Eindhoven (TU/e) Science Park in Eindhoven even believes that working together is the only option. “Our user facilities are also accessible to outsiders, which is only possible if we also have things in good order internally”, explains Martin van Breukelen, institute manager at DIFFER. “Researchers who want to do measurements with us must be able to settle in well. There has to be an onboarding process that involves the administrative side, with technicians and scientists supporting the research side. We are all aware of the interdependence across the board. For us, this is part of team science, where everyone contributes to running the research structure.”

The technical department has a vital role in keeping the instruments running and supporting researchers, technicians’ names are here and there included in scientific publications and they have a voice at the top of the organisation. “They know that it’s not ‘about us’, but ‘with us’. This results in positive impact in several directions. They can facilitate understanding of their process close up and feel appreciated because they are being invested in. It also offers broader development opportunities for their careers.”

Van Breukelen sees the fact that investment is being made in the quality of the workplace as another reward for “everyone across the board”. “We try to outsource as little as possible; we make sure we have machines that we can use ourselves. I also encourage people to call in on each other and talk about the work we are doing or show each other what we are working on.”

Encourage teams with an award

A productive way of recognising and rewarding team science is, of course, an award. For several years now, Radboud University (RU) in Nijmegen and the science section of the Dutch Research Council (NWO) have independently decided to reward inspiring examples of teamwork by putting them on a podium. “Around the start of the Recognition & Rewards programme, my department received a request from the Executive Board to come up with a Team Science Award”, says Claudia Lüttke, research policy officer at Radboud University. “In consultation with our Recognition & Rewards colleagues, we eventually formulated the content.”

A diverse jury chooses the winning team based on three criteria: collaborative culture, supported by concrete examples; diversity and how to use it; and scientific achievement. In Nijmegen, the winner receives €10,000 to spend on a team activity. “The first year we held it, we couldn’t decide and awarded two strong winners that amount”, says Lüttke.

Lüttke thinks a nice aspect of the prize is that the rector visits the team’s workplace with cake and a certificate. “They then have the opportunity to share their story. People feel truly appreciated this way.” Teams can nominate themselves or be nominated by others, and the presentation of the award coincides with the opening of the academic year.

Passionate teams

“For us, a team consists of at least three members”, explains NWO programme officer Joyce Burger, “otherwise you are a duo. We started the Team Science Award in 2020, after asking ourselves what we think is important for the Exact and Natural Sciences. We want to spread the message that you get further together than alone.”

‘They all have a very clear common goal and passion for the cause.’
Teams stand a better chance of winning an award at NWO if they have agreements on their joint working methods, communication and intellectual property on paper and are creative in their approach to their possibilities. The jury also considers composition, technical skills, talent development and diversity of institutions.

In addition to a cash prize of €50,000, winners also receive attention at NWO congresses and a public relations film provided by the NWO. “This is usually automatically followed by invitations to activities within their own university.”

Burger takes great pleasure in noticing how passionate the teams that submit entries always are. “They show that it is possible to transcend standard scientific collaboration”, she says. “They all have a very clear common goal and passion for the cause. It’s also noteworthy that they often do things together outside work and organise activities that strengthen the team spirit.”

Burger also notices that the types of teams making submissions vary widely. Recently formed as well as more established teams participate. The original intention was to organise the award ceremony for five years, but NWO may continue it for longer. “I think it’s a lovely award”, says Burger. “Being happy together is meaningful; you share in the joy and feeling of ‘togetherness’.”

Methods for productive team science

Several universities have developed their own frameworks for a healthy and effective team. See, for example, the article ‘Creating excellent teams’ by Floor Driessen in last year’s Recognition & Rewards e-magazine. UT’s Shaping 2030 programme manager Leontien Kalverda is working on a national inventory and exchange of methodologies. For more information, send an email to lkalverda@utwente.nl.