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The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice

Column Editors: Kimberly Acree Adams, Independent Consultant, and Stephanie Zajac, Houston Methodist Hospital

“The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research. In this issue, we explore how to translate the science and theory behind teamwork into practical training interventions with Kelley Slack and Lacey Schmidt of Minerva Work Solutions, PLLC (aka Minerva).

Teamwork Training: Where Science's Rubber Meets the Practitioner's Road

 

Kelley Slack and Lacey Schmidt
Minerva Work Solutions, PLLC

Overview of Minerva

After working with NASA to train astronauts for long-duration spaceflight missions for several years, Kelley and Lacey (along with Kathryn Keeton and Andrew Fritz) cofounded Minerva as a public benefit company (PBC) to provide evidence-based teamwork and leadership development interventions, especially to nonprofits, government agencies, and small businesses. As part of a PBC, Minerva’s consultants donate 30% of their time to helping charity organizations do more meaningful and effective work. Much of Minerva’s consulting (paid and pro-bono) involves helping leaders translate research and theory into sound team building and teamwork training applications.

Q&A With Minerva

To best explore how Minerva is using science and theory in their teamwork training interventions, we asked them to address several questions.

 

What are the key takeaways from the teamwork literature that you have used in practice?

As practitioners who have been involved in NASA astronaut training and selection, our use of theory is strongly colored by our extreme environment experience. We need to create teamwork and leadership interventions that maximize teams’ abilities to both live and work together. We also need to create training that allows multiple levels of teams to quickly prioritize and reprioritize goals as unpredictable events occur—sometimes the team must trade in all goals to achieve a safe mission or individuals must trade priorities to enhance the team’s performance. Additionally, our key takeaways are shaped by our knowledge of the “innovation paradox” that confronts all organizations operating in extreme environments—innovation is encouraged because it is sometimes required to ensure team safety in unexpected situations, but the fear of real environmental dangers sometimes limits willingness to innovate unless a significant threat looms (e.g., Apollo 13). Although our perspective may be a bit unique, we have found key takeaways that are likely universally applicable. Five highlights are:

  1. Multilevel teaming concepts and modeling are “where it’s at.” Analyzing Antarctic Research Expedition teams back in 2001 forced us to start thinking about individual, team, and event level variances in team performance. Almost all the teams we look at now are embedded within teams of teams, and most individuals are indeed members of many teams. It is clear that I-O practitioners must embrace the multilevel nature of teamwork if we want to design interventions that result in the multifaceted returns on investment that organizations rightfully expect.
  2. Nomological nets and how you talk to others about teamwork matters. The many presentations Scott Tannenbaum and Eduardo Salas have given to different trade audiences to explain their seven drivers of team effectiveness opened our eyes to the beauty of sticking to a single, simplified lexicon. The “seven Cs of teamwork” gave us a memorable framework that was easy to explain to physicians, pilots, mechanics, engineers, and chefs, as well as our varied multidisciplinary research partners. The nomological net makes it easier to sell the psychology and our ideas about training teams.
  3. Golden takeaways are hiding outside I-O psychology. Military research, other branches of psychology, communication, and engineering have a lot of practical hints and takeaways that need to be read and gleaned by practitioners. By reading widely we discovered things like facilitated debriefing, team dimensional training, crew resource management, motivational interviewing, and resilience findings that all necessarily informed how we talk about teams, study teamwork, and design interventions that result in multifaceted positive outcomes and returns on investments for organizations operating in extreme environments.
  4. Do not fall for the old saying that “there isn’t any research about it yet.” We reinvent the wheel too frequently because we fail to find existing interventions supported by evidence. Search widely and regularly for meta-analytic evidence across disciplines, and stay flexible enough to ask yourself questions like, “How is this research domain related to a team’s adaptability?” and “What does that say about how we should conduct teamwork training?” We also find that going to multidisciplinary gatherings or industry (e.g., healthcare) talks about teamwork helps us hear about the research and interventions that professionals outside of I-O are building and provide hints about where to dig deeper in other literatures.
  5. Persistent takeaways are now in our own literature. Recently, McEwan and colleagues (2017) identified meta-analytic evidence for four takeaways we have seen in our consulting experiences too: (a) teamwork competencies are interrelated and best trained in clusters (e.g., communication and situation awareness); (b) training individuals in transportable teamwork skills helps improve performance; (c) training teamwork skills in teams (even if it is not the usual team) in an experiential context (e.g., technical simulation) helps improve performance even further; and (d) getting teams to continuously observe and debrief teamwork is a key to enduring and continuous performance improvements.

 

Have you found teamwork theory to be difficult to apply to practice? In what ways?

This may sound obvious, but the most difficult part about applying teamwork theory to practice is that it is theory. Theory sometimes helps explain why something happens or helps us predict what is most likely to happen in general, but it does not usually describe how things work on a granular level or for a particular person or team in a specific context. As practitioners, we use theory to make our best educated guesses about what that means for designing a particular intervention for a specific team. At times, we have found it very difficult to interpret what theory means about coaching actual behaviors (e.g., just saying it is very important to communicate clearly does not help Mission Control and astronaut teams learn the actual behaviors associated with good team communication for a spacewalk). As psychologists, think in terms of behavior. What behaviors do those who excel in communication exhibit?  What about behaviors for poor communicators?  As we, at Minerva, ask ourselves those questions, we utilize the critical incident technique (Flanagan, 1954) to collect behaviors that typify performance at all levels of communication. Then we create behavior-based measurement tools that can be used to teach and coach effective communication.

Another challenge with applying theory to practice is translating it into universal lay speak. For example, psychologists think of personality and attitudes as two very different things, but many physicians we work with think of them as interchangeable terms. Figuring out these weak points in translation is critical because we have learned that we must partner with other teamwork experts in the context to achieve worthwhile interventions. Although these experts have different models of teamwork and speak different team theory languages, this is really an asset to application. The things that hold true in every model, and clearly resonate in all translations, have turned out to be the things that are most worth spending time to develop interventions around.

Explaining (and selling) the complex statistical concepts required to design effective teamwork training is another lay speaking challenge. We have found that using visuals and metaphors helps. For example, the importance of a random sample can be explained in terms of using a flashlight to illuminate a dark room to expose its contents, where the room is the population and the area lit is the sample. What is illuminated depends on where the flashlight is shone; and, a larger light, like a larger sample, exposes more of the room. As practitioners, we can help one another by finding and sharing metaphors that work well enough to help you explain the latest teamwork theory to your great grandmother.

How can what you gleaned in practice better inform the theory?

Ideally, there is a reciprocal nature between research and practice. What is learned in research is transferred into practice and issues that arise in practice become the focus of future research. This does not always happen, hence the scientist–practitioner gap. As practitioners who pride ourselves on offering evidence-based solutions to our clients, we also have a strong interest in research. What we see in our practice sparks ideas (e.g., Keeton, Schmidt, Slack, & Malka, 2012). When we find ourselves asking questions about what we have experienced, we conduct our own research or reach out to a colleague in research. We let our practical experiences guide our research questions. For us, practice provides a context for theory.

NASA is a stellar example of reciprocity and interdependency between research and operations. Although a mission to Mars is not slated until the mid-2030s, NASA has been hard at work for years identifying and reducing the risks associated with long-duration exploration missions. NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance Research Laboratory (BHP Research) is responsible for evaluating three risks to human spaceflight: behavioral health, teams, and sleep and fatigue. Of course, teams are of interest to us as I-O psychologists. Research at NASA is purposefully multidisciplinary though. Many of the issues associated with human spaceflight cannot be fully understood without looking beyond the evident. Radiation, for example, can affect neurological functioning and thus could affect the ability for a crewmember to work effectively as part of a team. So, not only do we need to promote interdependency between scientists and practitioners, we also must actively reach across disciplines to ensure we fully understand an issue and its implications.

At Minerva, we are currently investigating humor. The interest in humor arose when one of us noticed cultural differences in the application of humor for crews wintering over in Antarctica. Affiliative humor seemed beneficial, increasing team cooperation and morale, regardless of national culture. We were able to add a measure of humor to other research being conducted at HI-SEAS, an extreme environment analog. Together with an industrial engineer who was a past crewmember of a HI-SEAS mission, we are analyzing the relationship over time between styles of humor and stress using biodata such as cortisol and data gathered from wearable devices such as heart rate, sleep, and activity. What one of us noticed and wondered about in practice led to our current investigation of humor and its role in a team’s social climate. The results from this research will be fed back into how we coach leaders and teams to use humor.

How have you communicated the value of teamwork and teamwork research to those not familiar with the practice of I-O?

Before you can communicate the value of teamwork to a potential client, you have to be clear in your own mind what teamwork is. Pick a philosophical definition and stick to it. For Minerva, teamwork is employed by a group in which members have a shared goal and must share some tasks to achieve that goal.

Regardless of how firmly held your definitions are, you and your client are unlikely to have the same definition initially. Tell your potential clients how you define teamwork and, when possible, be specific with your terminology. Instead of using the more generic term “teamwork,” talk about communication when communication is the issue. Link your discussion of communication to teamwork gradually over time. Starting with specific terminology helps clients more quickly identify and understand how change can be implemented.

When you have shared definitions, you can begin to communicate the value of teamwork and teamwork research to those unfamiliar with I-O psychology. This communication must occur at multiple levels and time points. When talking to management, we find their “pain point”—the reason our services are required. We can then speak to them about teamwork in the language of their pains. For example, crew safety is the reason for NASA’s tagline of “failure is not an option.”  We speak to that by discussing how effective teamwork reduces the odds of errors compounding into failures. Handovers, when one work shift leaves and another replaces it, occur three times daily for each console (desk) in Mission Control. Each time a handover occurs, there is a risk of critical information being neglected. Teaching teamwork skills, like coordination and communication, along with best practices for debriefs, increases the safety of crew and station by reducing the likelihood of an error due to an omission or miscommunication during a handover.

Sometimes leaders accept teamwork research as sufficient evidence of teamwork’s value, but most often not. To pinpoint and highlight the necessity of teamwork (and teamwork research), we often use an experiential simulation with low physical fidelity. Essentially a game but one that requires cooperation and coordination for the team to win. The simulation engages the players and allows them to practice team skills we know from research to be essential. Players can see improvement in their own performance as the simulations progress and thus see for themselves how teamwork behaviors are really the issue. A facilitated debrief using a research-based approach, such as Team Dimensional Training (Smith-Jentsch, Cannon-Bowers, Tannenbaum, & Salas, 2008), also provides an opportunity for players to discover and internalize how what they just practiced applies to their workplace. As a facilitator, this requires having some knowledge of how the industry and organization for which you are providing services defines and relies on teams.

What do you think are the emerging issues in the area of teams?

Although we understand that the various teams within a multiteam system need to work well together, we do not yet know how to assess and compare the synergies created by these teams of teams. Why are some teams of teams better at managing virtual work than others? Is there a significant difference in the time required for different types of multilevel teams to form, storm, norm, reform, and coordinate effectively? Also, we see individual engagement is tied to important outcomes and, on the organizational scale, engagement is being used as an indicator of climate. What does this mean for a team concept of engagement? How do we make sure our teamwork interventions foster individual engagement? How do we design our training interventions to help multiteam systems maximize their synergies? In sum, there are plenty of teamwork theory and intervention adventures on which to embark. Welcome to the learning journey. We’re happy to trade tools and tales along the way.

Calling Potential Contributors to “The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” 

As outlined in Poteet, Zugec, and Wallace (2016), the TIP Editorial Board and Professional Practice Committee continue to have oversight and review responsibility for this column. We invite interested potential contributors to contact us directly with ideas for columns. If you are interested in contributing, please contact either Kimberly at kadams6006@gmail.com or Stephanie at szajac@houstonmethodist.org.

References

Flanagan, J. C. (1954). The critical incident technique. Psychological Bulletin51(4), 327.

Keeton, K. E., Schmidt, L. L., Slack, K. J., & Malka, A. A. (2012). The rocket science of teams. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 5, 32-35.

McEwan, D., Ruissen, G. R., Eys, M. A., Zumbo, B. D., & Beauchamp, M. R. (2017). The effectiveness of teamwork training on teamwork behaviors and team performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled interventions. PloS one, 12(1), e0169604

Poteet, M., Zugec, L., & Wallace, J. C. (2016).  The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice: The bridge. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 53(4). http://www.siop.org/tip/april16/pdfs/bridge.pdf

Smith-Jentsch, K. A., Cannon-Bowers, J. A., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Salas, E. (2008). Guided team self-correction: Impacts on team mental models, processes and effectiveness. Small Group Research, 39(3), 303-327.

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