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A Dynamical Approach Toward Understanding Mechanisms of Team Science: Change, Kinship, Tension, and Heritage in a Transdisciplinary Team


  • Gaetano R. Lotrecchiano Ed.D., Ph.D.

    Corresponding author
    • Assistant Professor of Clinical Research and Leadership and of Pediatrics, Program Director, Clinical and Translational Science Programs, George Washington University, School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Washington, District of Columbia, USA
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Correspondence: Gaetano R. Lotrecchiano (glotrecc@gwu.edu)


Since the concept of team science gained recognition among biomedical researchers, social scientists have been challenged with investigating evidence of team mechanisms and functional dynamics within transdisciplinary teams. Identification of these mechanisms has lacked substantial research using grounded theory models to adequately describe their dynamical qualities. Research trends continue to favor the measurement of teams by isolating occurrences of production over relational mechanistic team tendencies. This study uses a social constructionist-grounded multilevel mixed methods approach to identify social dynamics and mechanisms within a transdisciplinary team. A National Institutes of Health—funded research team served as a sample. Data from observations, interviews, and focus groups were qualitatively coded to generate micro/meso level analyses. Social mechanisms operative within this biomedical scientific team were identified. Dynamics that support such mechanisms were documented and explored. Through theoretical and emergent coding, four social mechanisms dominated in the analysis—change, kinship, tension, and heritage. Each contains relational social dynamics. This micro/meso level study suggests such mechanisms and dynamics are key features of team science and as such can inform problems of integration, praxis, and engagement in teams.


Cross-disciplinary team science (TS) has become increasingly more relevant as collaborations between and across professional silos is now considered critical to the success of the general healthcare enterprise.[1] The science-of-team-science (SciTS), the evidence-based research that informs its effectiveness, continues to fight for an appropriate place in the field of clinical translational science (CTS). Though it is widely accepted that “TS is needed to tackle and conquer the health problems that are plaguing our society,”[2] actual evidence of the dynamics by which teams act in CTS using multilevel systems approaches is only beginning to enter the discourse.[3]

Scientific disciplines are prestructured socializing groups of organization and tradition. They have less to do with the actual acquisition of knowledge as they do with reorganizing it to fit new problems.[4] TS is the catalytic entity that increases outcomes of transformed, novel, and complex structures that reflect the benefits of acting as a multidisciplinary stakeholder enterprise. Transdisciplinary teams who integrate and synthesize knowledge through this oscillating social tendency drive the world of CTS. These teams value multiple levels of reality, the logic of passing from one level of awareness to another, and complexity and often operate within chaotic situations as they strive to innovate.[5] Stakeholders within these teams work with different disciplines requiring some level of interaction transcending barriers to the advancement of clinical science.[6] Such teams are unique sample groups for micro/meso level CTS inquiry where the dynamical tendencies of social and behavioral activity can be observed.

Investigational purpose

Complex organizations require complex transdisciplinary means of observation. By using an instrumental descriptive case study[7] TS is viewed from a dynamical perspective informed by social thought from a number of perspectives to understand interdependent social mechanisms within a complex setting. Grounded theory techniques[8] allow social mechanisms of transdisciplinary to be measurable social phenomena with preorienting theory biasing the inquiry.[9] Though this is the case, it is important to recognize that several sciences have contributed to the study of teams.

The rich history of psychosocial inquiry has focused on person-to-person cooperation contributed to our understanding of the mapping team social interactions and has explored meanings embedded within team activities. These were a departure from individualistic behavioralism[10] that had dominated social mapping research through the 1960 until the 1980s. Newer studies strive to describe the relationships between clusters of social activities with the goal of providing answers to a number of questions including the crossing of social and thought boundaries.[11] The advent of TS endeavors tests our normalized understandings about the scientific enterprise when considered from a social perspective. The interactive quality of these phenomena leads us to ask what social mechanisms emerge in transdisciplinary team science?

Interests in TS, especially in biomedical and healthcare arenas, stems from heightened expectations that through team collaborations outcomes otherwise unrealizable will result.[6] The evaluative considerations within SciTS focus on inquiry that shifts away from the intentionality of collaboration, the why, and attempts to measure how teams collaborate. The dynamics of TS can provide better understandings about the ecology of these endeavors.[12]

Social psychology and management science

Exchanges between actors from similar (and different) thought worlds show how interdependence functions in teams,[13] a goal of the integrationists who focused on conflict and its effects on “exchange,”[14] societal “sewing together,”[15] nonconforming behavior and deviance,[16, 17] perpetual social dysfunction,[18] disciplinary contribution to change, [19, 20] and change mechanisms and their role in innovation.[21, 22] The role of dichotomies like dominance/submission, friendliness/unfriendliness, and authority acceptance/rejection served as results. In more recent years dynamical inquiry has grown away from these psychosocial dimensions to focus on team functions and theories housed in the management literature with investigational techniques more in line with the intersection of social psychology and organizational science.[23-25]

Team familiarity and social cohesion

Issues related to team cohesion are found in the social psychology, management, and organizational science literature documenting attempts to measure effectiveness and decision making.[26, 27] Some researchers have concluded that cohesion is directly related to heightened performance and that “good” performance reciprocates cohesion suggesting that tension and conflict are transient elements. Homogeneity has shown less likely to yield success compared to heterogeneous groups in some cases.[28-30] And It has been found that there is a longitudinal element that suggests that strong familiarity between team members over time may negatively affect sustained high-level performance.[27, 31] This is partially due to emergent social behaviors that are bred through familiarity like social loafing, and groupthink[32, 33] that may be deterrents to high performance. Familiarity may in fact breed inflexibility over time as communication skills decline[31, 34] though some have argued that this is due to a reluctance to modify pre-established roles and interaction patterns.[35]

Changing environments also precipitate the evaluation of team member behaviors in the hopes of producing new ones when needed to meet new goals.[36] Researchers gathered qualitative data from long time collaborators (>10 years) to show that “significant differences are not apparent between how disciplinary and interdisciplinary collaborators described the experience of encountering different viewpoint.”[37] Some participants, even though they were from different disciplines describe themselves as thinking so much alike that disagreement was not possible. For those that experienced typical disagreement, researcher hypothesizes that a shared worldview and familiarity with the work of the other, a transdisciplinary and interdependent reality, developed to mitigate disciplinary differences over time.[37]

Leadership traits and behaviors

It should be highlighted that the subject of leadership in transdisciplinary studies has evolved over time as complexity and interests about scientific collaborations have changed. Though the primacy of leader traits and behaviors and their influencing roles in sustaining interdisciplinary collaborations continues to be supported in the literature[38-42] no direct linkages are easily derived that credit leader-centered influence on successful transdisciplinary teams.[12] Shared vocabularies, metaphors, story-lines, intermediaries, negotiation, and other more dynamical elements all serve as tools that assist in collaboration and are useful realities managers responsible for engaging collaboration need to consider.[12] Shifts away from leader-centrist analyses to systemic concerns that include the individual as part of the collective leadership mechanism yield more insight into how teams are influenced.[43] Leadership is framed as direction and meaning that generates sustained trust, displaying a bias toward action, risk taking, and curiosity, and emphasizing the role of hope as shared responsibilities spread beyond the characteristics of any one team member.[44]

Goal setting

Participatory goal setting ensures an awareness of group structure, belief, and simultaneous collective efficacy.[26, 33, 45] The lack of adequate communication feedback has been shown to severely restrict team performance[33, 46]; sustained communication between team members has been shown to encourage feelings of trust and safety,[47] and better equips teams to manage issues associated with size and cohesion.[33] Values have a particular role in this process as outcomes can motivate teams to readjust and further reevaluate intentions, behavior and performance.[48] Common vocabularies, cross-disciplinary activities, the primacy of team research, and debate about theory, methodology, and technique are in themselves maintenance variables to the team enterprise.[41] Factors like the relationship between homogeneity and group process and social integration are linked to the ability to set goals and “are likely to increase the frequency of communication among members and the attraction the members have for one another.” [23]

Dynamism in reciprocal interdependence

Reciprocal interdependence within teams has shown to be directly related to successful outcomes, collective goals, and mutual rewards. Variations of learning behaviors, helping, and social orientations toward task achievement yield interdependent attitudes that adopt “…group-reward systems for highly interdependent teams motivating members to perform well and resulted in greater effort. When team goals are the product of individual and collective performance measured separately the team is hybridized, within both individual and collective goal and reward systems.[49] Hybrid teams perform poorly, exhibited poor interpersonal processes, having low levels of member satisfaction.”[12]

Interdependence is a multilevel social state of relationships with multiple levels of intensity and degrees of reciprocity. The different parts of the team are linked by a relationship of homeostasis[50] that drives both the need to remain continually invested in the goals of the team (sequential interdependence) as well as remaining intent on the goals of the individual (pooled interdependence). Outputs of groups become inputs in an ever self generating environment.[51] Reciprocal interdependence and team interdependence, become hallmarks of transdisciplinary groups that rely on the interplay of workflows from agent to agent in multidirectional manners rather than simply between individual agents.[42, 51, 52] Inputs and outputs to teams are both generated by a individual and the collective that are indelibly related and contribute to the entropic character of the system.[53] They have a causal relationship that is measurable through social mechanisms that point to “generative models that formally represent the mechanisms through which the social outcomes are thought to have been brought about.”[54] This parallels the differentiation and intensity of complexity found in multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinarities.[5] Micro-meso level inquiry, for which this study focuses, considers the role of reciprocity and team interdependence in the shaping of identity in transdisciplinary teams. The mechanisms that these oscillating dynamics generate are “subverted or unsettled, make one suddenly conscious of that which was previously prereflected” or in other words, to question that which one though to be understood.[55] The individual level of analysis cannot therefore be understated in the process of trying to understand the social level phenomenon.

Social mechanisms, complexity and translational science

Social mechanisms are “systematic set[s] of statements that provide a plausible account of how inputs and outputs [within teams] are linked to one another.”[11] Studying interactions within teams, focusing on characteristics and influences that contribute to collaboration is a qualitative inquiry that searches for the meaning of certain social mechanisms. Emergent and complex situations such as those found in CTS teams depend on interactions that generate new innovative realities. Social mechanisms describe how stakeholders “focus on middle-range puzzles or paradoxes for which precise, action-based, abstract, and fine-grained explanations are sought.”[11] The ultimate usefulness of social mechanism research is the ability to theorize and conjecture which interactions are most relevant and applicable to ensure the success and sustainability of transdisciplinary teams. Social mechanism inquiry in the context of the increasing social complexity of achieving transdisciplinary TS makes it a viable and useful research focus.[56-58] Documented observances of social mechanisms aid in transcending causal law and statistical explanations to evaluate “action-relevant entities and activities and the way in which they are linked together.”[54]

Transdisciplinarity in itself is a semipermanent state and the sustainability of this state constantly challenges teams.[13, 59] Complex adaptive systems, transdisciplinary and translational teams, are emergent environments where plasticity, irritability, variety, selectivity, preservation, and propagation are key elements in the shift to a paradigm where semipermanence emerges as a steady state. Complexity science serves as a helpful construct in understanding that transdisciplinarity is an emergent and interactive constant in TS. Researching these characteristics within complex adaptive systems is a measurement of the constituency of tension and the characteristics of entropy in teams.[42, 60] Though only beginning to be understood in the context of practical application, complexity science offers a means for understanding the challenges of teams to meet their goals. “As a novel approach to [biomedical] research, complexity science challenges us to think clearly about the nature of reality and how we come to understand it, questions of ontology and epistemology, and challenges our understanding of causation and how we detect it.”[61] This sort of thinking about healthcare and most importantly how to envision science that is translational has led some to reconsider reductionist tendencies that more often utilize isolated methodologies of siloed scientific communities. Within teams of stakeholders, decentralizing this tendency has scientific implications about collaborative practices and outcomes as well as evolutionary ones as traditional scientific disciplines move beyond asocial tendencies to approaches that “include the preservation of individual creativity, leadership, integrity, mutual trust, and respect” between collaborators.[62] This brings us to consider the dynamical engagements of teams and map the mechanisms with their ongoing and constantly team engaging elements.


The conceptual framework for this study is one that recognizes the dynamic tendencies associated with team engagement as structuring elements in a self-sustaining system.[63] The ultimate usefulness in this sort of approach over descriptions of social activity is a “style of theorizing rather than a specific definition of what a social mechanisms is.” [11] Exchange between agents is the entropic driver as well as the mediator of its continual evolution. “In dealing with the sociocultural system…we need yet a new concept to express not only the structure-maintaining features, but also the structure—elaborating and changing feature of the inherently unstable system.”[60] In other words, the constant development and change of individuals within teams drives the team itself to evolve beyond its own confines. This framework serves as a means by which interactions are understood as systematic elements rather than byproducts of teamwork. This is a major contribution as this study attempts to isolate and analyze these mesostructures. These interventions are representative of the system's social mechanisms and are therefore emergent and ultimately responsible for maintaining the tension required to ensure entropy of action (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Conceptual framework of the research. Individual actors in a team negotiate their role and disciplinary representation through reciprocal interdependence operative in the team. These are social mechanisms that define the team. These social mechanisms are measurable, provide validation through systematic observations, and provide information about the individual/group covariance.

The team utilized in this study was partly a convenience sample and partly chosen because of its gained respect amongst others within its research network. Since its funding in 2003 until the time of this research (2010–2012) the team has grown to include 14 centers of laboratory/clinical science, leverage its federal funds with private donations, include private pharmaceutical companies to produce its drugs, engage a patient/parent association of advocates, maintain regular monthly communications, and 1–3 national meetings. Participants included a co-principal investigator in neuropsychology, a nutritionist, a clinical coordinator, a co-PI in pediatrics, a federal project officer, a postdoctoral fellow in genetics, a financial coordinator, a faculty member in pediatrics, a co-PI in genetics, and parent advocate. The full consortium included 70 people at the time of the research from 12 United States centers, 1 Canadian center, and 1 in Switzerland. Twenty participants consented to take part in the study and 10 were chosen based on their discipline, social role, and geographic location (ensuring geographic diversity).

The methods and findings in this paper are part of a larger study in which only some of the methodological and outcome material is included in this report.[64] The objectives of the methodological design relative to this part of the study were (1) to capture the interactive qualities of team participation by measuring the social mechanisms and (2) to validate observations through individual level confirmation securing credible and confirmable soundness in participant interviews[65] (Table 1), thus being able to comment on the role of social mechanisms within the team. These criteria serve to ground the methods within a larger conceptual framework (Figure 1).

Table 1. Data collection methodology
Collection SourceSample/CriteriaJustificationImplementation
  • a

    Free flat-forum bulletin board software.

  • b

    A pen equipped with a recording device that syncs spoken words with research notes. This apparatus can store interview data digitally on a computer for analytical purposes.

  • c

    Qualitative data analysis software.

  • d

    Face to face.

  • 1

    Dalkey NC, Helmer O. An experimental application of the Delphi Method to the use of experts. Management Science. 1963;9(3):458–468.

  • 2

    Skulmoski GJ, Hartman FT, Krahn J. The Delphi Method for graduate research. Journal of Information Technology Education. 2007;6:1–21.

  • 3

    Spradley J. Participant Observation. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston; 1980.

  • 4

    Creswell JW. Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE 2007.

  • 5

    Maxwell JA. Qualitative Research Design. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications; 2005.

Network focus group (virtual engagement)N = 1 (10 in the group)/Criteria: disciplinary role representation, social role representation, geographic representation, survey completionPurposeful sample of informed participants representative of both strata with center diversity. Measured social interactions and mechanisms through linguistic (written) interchanges (on-line) using a modified Delphi methodology1 to understand emergent indicators during problem solving activities and to understand consensus behaviors between team members.2phpBB™a discussion software created an online message board to capture discussions from the geographically disparate group.
Participant observationN = 50–70/Criteria: all conference participantsEngagement with National Conference participants. Grand tour and mini tour observations. Tour observations supplied the general overview of the temporal landscape of the group. This general tour of the network was expanded to include “almost every aspect of the experience in additional to spatial location.”3On-site participant observations by researcher. Manual notes taken and recorded through Live-Scribe Pen.b
InterviewsN=10/Criteria: purposeful and snowball sampling,4 focus group, representation of geographic diversity, social role representation, disciplinary role representation.Network focus group participants. Validation of survey and focus group data. Description of meanings. Semistructured interviews with emergent questions from the Delphi sequence of discussions. Focus on team phenomena and emergent details of description.5F2F interview and phone discussions. Manual notes taken and recorded through Live-Scribe Pen. Interviews were coded thematically and organized through the ATLAS.tic software package.
Local focus group (Washington, DC F2Fd engagement) [91-95]N=1 (5–7 in the group)/Criteria: primary funded institution membershipInformed participants with some representation of both strata for the purpose of internal auditing and member checking. Measured social interactions and mechanisms through linguistic (colloquial) interchanges (in person).Triangulation of data by cross-referencing group and participant data with interview semi structured questions, written documentations and observational material. Member checking. External audit. Internal audit.
Figure 2.

Linkages between social mechanisms and supporting dynamics

Trustworthiness of data were maintained to ensured the highest possible level of reliability of the data. Data from the various collection techniques were organized so that they could be verified and analyzed leaving room for emergent codes and themes. Through the assistance of an iterator, coding was verified on paper and during the local focus group meeting. Internal and external audits and member checking were exercised throughout.[65]

Coding and analysis

Network focus groups, participant observations, interviews and the local focus group provided data that led to thematic coding as a result of a priori and inductively coded material.[66] Through the use of Atlas.ti software 18 dynamical codes were clustered into 4 social mechanisms based on their relational ties. Once this process was complete relationships between team expressions were mapped to expose the full social mechanism.[66] Table 2 describes the process of analysis marking the data collections techniques and the sequencing of analysis which led to the composite addressing of the research question.

Table 2. Analytic process. Throughout the analytical process triangulation of data, internal and external auditing, and member checking were performed. Coding of interview material occurred primarily during phase 2 of the process and meaning of the data was extrapolated during the phases 3 and 4 leading to the composite analysis
Phase 1Phase 2Phase 3Phase 4Composite

Network focus group

Identification of social mechanisms of interaction

Evidence of theoretical codes from the literature

Use content analysis and direct quotes from dialogues

Participant Observation

Identification of tangible conditions

Identify key tangible elements of the network and their social/disciplinary interactions

Participant interviews

Verify observed material from focus groups; assign meaning

Cross-reference group values variance with focus group data

Local focus group

Verify observed material from other data sources and analysis

What are the social mechanisms?

Composite description of social mechanisms

The iterative nature of the research design allowed for the various data resources to be subject to continual cross-reference between data collection techniques. The analytic progression leading to the composite analysis of data describes the details of the data collection and analysis processes.


Within each of the social mechanisms mapped, certain dynamic elements were analysed as having an impact on meso-level team interactions. Each share elements showing how individuals interact with the teams either as a whole or as interactive agents, such interactions and the dynamical elements that they describe are shown as supporting team social mechanisms. Each mechanism varies in detail and are presented accordingly.

The change mechanism

The change mechanism emerged as a collection of dynamic elements and team expressions that provide energy to the teaming enterprise. Each dynamic highlights how working within the team is a product of constant change as members, relationship, and investments mature within the team.[14] The primacy of team goals over individual ones is at the center of this mechanism. Participants had repeatedly mentioned the primacy of team goals highlighting their own endeavors as a resource to the team goals.

There are several kinds of team science and obviously it is when a group of people work for common goals, bring their own skills and derive benefits from the team. But in this, in many ways we are working individually and pooling data rather than working together.” (Participant 59)

I think the benefits [of submitting to the team goals] are that you have synergies that allow you to develop…the drawbacks are that you can't just do what you want to do. You have to do it as a group. If its a true team science project then you have to be ready for other people in the team to take over leadership in other areas and things may not move as rapidly as you want them to. You have to follow process rather than being nimble..” (Participant 100)

I think people are more energized when they are on these bigger projects at least I am.” (Participant 69)

Participants verified the adaptations that are sometimes related to generative factors, matters of equity and equality within the group, or the affect the group has on career advancement. Such individual change is the result of team interactions as described by one participant as “process” that refers to a number of dynamic elements operative within the team. Research describes this functioning in many ways as feedback, reciprocal action, and exchanges.[14, 33, 46, 51, 67] These dynamic elements are indicators of forces that represent a number of types of individual internal conflicts when working within the team that result in altered states.[68, 69] Individual choices about involvement, working with certain mentors and risking team participation over more individualized career planning are critical factors in CTR teams.[70] Failure is the inability to achieve team goals and is “a property of”* compromise where individuals must adjust and adapt, possibly without formal feedback to ensure that they adhere to team requirements striving for measurable successful outcomes of internal/external expectations.[48] This change highlights how compromise has the power to alter one's perception about success especially based on team goals.[26, 33] When compromise is operative within the team environment, team goal success is more likely and individual change is a natural byproduct.[45]

As team members attempt to adapt to different and emerging situational expectations flexibility emerges as necessary behavior for proper or possibly desired team functioning since it assumingly perpetuates greater communication skills.[32, 50] External conflict is indelible to team hierarchies, ideologies, or epistemologies that may internally promote rigidity about goals but within teams may foster more flexibility.

You know, I guess with individuals you have more focused goals. With team science you have more of a consensus of a group and people that you have to sort of resolve conflict and make progress” (Participant 69).

There aren't enough projects for all of the individual centers and their young people to do so…[Brad] and [the university] got into an issue over the [transplantation] and that is probably a harbinger of things to come. So there are going to be strains that will occur but I won't be a part of them [because I am near retirement]. But it is easily possible to project the fact that these things are going to arise.” (Participant 59)

This interrelationship between different types of conflict has shown to be interlinked with team cultures and values [71, 72] often assuming singular cultural frameworks rather than multi-value frameworks.[73] Transdisciplinary teams are more likely to exercise the latter. Further research has shown that there may be a proportional relationship between conflict, diversity, and team outputs.[74, 75] Conflict remains a change component within the team because it serves as a means to an end rather than a static constant. Figure 3 shows how social dynamics within this mechanism have a proximal relationship with one another and shows the team expressions operative within these interactions.

Figure 3.

Change mechanism dynamic relationships.

The kinship mechanism

The dynamics of the kinship mechanism reinforce patterns of organizational ties in the social structure of the research team.[70, 76] These organizations identities are grounded in the relationship between the individual and organization that over time bring one's own interasubjective reality to a generically subjective individual/team construction.[76] Member checking would seem to be a very strong expression within the team as it strives to capitalize on the collective knowledge found throughout the group thus generating close ties between members.

What I have heard from others is that part of the way they learned team science was the ability to walk down the hall (literally) and check in with someone.” (Participant 65)

It is a result of the interdependence and familiarity that causes team protocols that are a cause of member checking.

All of these people contribute different pieces to knowledge…and each of us with the methodological [contributions]…neuroimaging get involved, neurocognitive analysis gets involved. [Our] proposal couldn't have happened without all of us involved.” (Participant 65)

It's not unique in that I've been part of other collaborative studies but this group is unique in other ways… First [the PI] is just a brilliant charismatic leader. He leads by example but also by money. He is really brought those things to the table that allow you to control groups…The other thing is the group gets along very well. We knew one another and there was not one rough edge relationship in the original group. And I don't think any rough edges in the current group.” (Participant 59)

Member checking is a root dynamic that has the potential to build not only extra-disciplinary appreciation but also familiarity.[36] This is an observable form of interdependence that builds strong team protocols. The extra-disciplinary appreciation that is derived from a general sense of respect found within the group is grounded in the overall discourse and discussion that is an overarching expression grounding the entire scientific enterprise. Interdependence, in this scenario, is the interactions between team members that yield a noticeable and desired familiarity. The attraction between members in this way would seem to represent some selection process, though it is difficult to know if this also has a component of attrition as some researchers have reported in such teams.[70] Interdependence not only plays an integral part in establishing a culture of collaboration but aids in the development of grounded and strong ties between members as a means of reinforcing familiarity. Familiarity is the inclusion of a dimension of success and the relationships that play a role in structuring this sort of dynamic. The team depends greatly on member checking which allows for social and thought boundaries to be crossed as well as highlights the interdependence of team members. Figure 4 maps the reinforcing relationships between the dynamics within the kinship mechanism and their team expressions. The group reinforces its ties in the way it interacts (its team protocols/rules), its discussions (linguistic communications), and an environment (context) that encourages interactive engagement and interdependence.[73]

Figure 4.

Kinship mechanism dynamic relationships.

The tension mechanism

The tension mechanism provides a level of paradox to the team's activities as a series of dyadic relationships that span a continuum of extremes—unidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, process and outcomes, individuality and the group, etc. They embody a tension that suggests movement, variation, and inconsistent descriptions of the energy that drives this team[50] yet paralleling the binding capacity of kinship through some of its dynamics especially member checking, discourse and discussion, and extra-disciplinary appreciation. Tension serves as a means of understanding that certain combinations of paradigms no longer lead to logical, helpful, or innovative ends but rather highlight the role of team values, protocols, viewpoints and communications styles.

Multiplicity of viewpoints and epistemologies are self-evident functions of either role or disciplinary differences of perspective. In a transdisciplinary team such diversity can be assumed as necessary for novel outcomes as individuals interact to achieve otherwise unattainable goals.[5] It can also serve as a source of the inherent imbalances that occur between team members. Multiplicity is grounded in individuality and unidisciplinarity as members contribute to the team whole in ways that are extensions of their unique contributions that when combined with others may result is new outcomes not entirely in line with individual goals.

The value of my role as an ‘epidemiologist and biostatistician' is…to understand what the scientists, the clinician scientist want to do and through design and methodology make that more possible through the process.” (Participant 65)

Part of it is that a good portion of the team is very invested in looking at different signs and research that pertains to the [x] disorders from all kinds of perspectives so that has allows me to do different kinds of things that were not done previously.” (Participant 75)

While multiple viewpoints are evidence of the diversity within the group, outcome benefits grounded in shared and common visions remain.[48] Member checking draws attention to innate relationships that afford such sharing of information to take place. For others it may represent an incompleteness, loss, or haphazard treatment of unidisciplinary criteria not always central to collaborative outcomes thus added an element of tension. A sense of extra-disciplinary appreciation is fostered so that such communication can be prioritized. For many team members, extra-disciplinary appreciation is a departure from perspectives that are learned within this otherwise isolated disciplines.[4, 6] These are just a few of the many tension attributes that contribute toward an interdiscipline over time. While the primacy of team goals had been continually reinforced in the data, there is also a repeated emphasis on the individual, his or her development, unique contributions, and attributes that he or she brings to the team.[76] The need for members to maintain respect for the individual leads to a morality about team operations similar to team protocols but more value grounded.

I think these people are used to working together. It is very clear that there is a very high level of respect between members…Even when I came in, and felt that I ought to be an outsider, they made it very clear that that wouldn't be tolerated and that I was going to be a member of the team and expected to open my mouth when I'm needed to etc.” (Participant 65)

What this team has done is to be very generous to your people. They realize that they need a reward to get ahead in their career. So that has a disproportionate opportunity to be in commanding places in the papers.” (Participant 59)

I think they are ethical and morally responsible people who share a common goal of trying to better the quality of life of individuals… They bring to the environment a sense of purpose and a need to be involved in this effort. To me those are the kinds of moral and ethical values that people have to bring to the bench.” (Participant 67)

I think that is why many people choose team science as well. The benefits far outweigh the risks.” (Participant 100)

Well…. you know overall when I came about 6 months ago I was impressed by their collegiality and their commitment to studying this very difficult…it's very team centered and flexible.” (Participant 69)

It would seem that the tension and kinship mechanism play some sort of dualistic role in

that member checking, discourse and discussion, and extra-disciplinary appreciation dynamics express similar yet opposing roles. For the kinship mechanism these ensure bonding and the evolutionary coming together of team members on a meaningful plane. Within the tension mechanism they are the source of dichotomous differentials about moving in and out of individualized and group functioning. This may be a key factor to the reciprocal nature of teaming[51] and the entropic nature of teams that ensures their evolution.[53]

Figure 5 shows the relationships between these social dynamics as described above.

Figure 5.

Tension mechanism dynamic relationships.

The heritage mechanism

The heritage mechanism is the longitudinal expressions of individual and collective descriptions of those things that have long-term value to the individual and the group. It is a cultural property where individual and team lineage is not always easily expressed or even often discussed. It is part of the identity of the group as the sum of individual contributions or as reflections of the team's identity in general are at time at odds and in alignment. Most participants felt that formal training did little to prepare them for for team science and therefore their own individual interpretations of group heritage were solidified once in the group with little preteaming preparation.

How was I trained to work with others? The hard way! There was no official training. Back when I was doing my graduate work, there was a lot of…you had to be in your own silo. You couldn't be cooperative in research. When I when back [in school] we set up a multidisciplinary laboratory…we spent a lot of time doing program project grants that involved neurochemists, geneticists, neuroanatomists, people who were doing mouse models. All different types of disciplines came together. But this was very much frowned upon by the higher ups.” (Participant 67)

You sort of learn team science and behavior through experience… So, umm you know shutting down your self for a while and listening to them and then trying to figure out compromises and solutions.” (Participant 69)

Unidisciplinary training does have value as individual team members shared. Team heritage struggles with maintaining team core values and identity and simultaneously responding to the needs of individuals within the group who have needs and agendas of their own.[77] Career advancement is one of those dynamics that for different team members possesses individuals goal sets that may more may not match team goals.[48] Career advancement is a function of individuals that may not always align with an evolutionary quality of team science. There is a matter of perspective that separates these two similar but unrelated dynamics within this team. A powerful element within this mechanism is the role of formal training and interactions between team members which both assist to establish a heritage that is a culmination of individuals and team interests while simultaneously assisting in the evolution of it.[53] This dichotomous interplay contributes to measurable success where individual advancement and expertise building contributes to the cultural heritage of the team. The awareness of the team's heritage is dependant on interactions with others that serves as a type of training and is valued by the team members in the same way that formal training is in exablishing expertise in team members. In essence, formal training, advancement in both varieties of career and expertise, and interactions are dynamics of the team society that manage the heritage of the team in complementary or reciprocal ways.[51] Figure 6 shows the relationships between these social dynamics.

Figure 6.

Heritage mechanism social dynamic relationships.


The findings of this study provide a series of implications important for practical application. Part of the goal of TS is to establish representations in teams from multiple fields.[6] This goal responds to any number of concerns all of which have led researchers and practitioners to consider better team makeups based on this goal. As this study has shown interactive team qualities are measurable and internal change capacity, the drivers that maintain team evolution, and their team cohesiveness can serve as useful qualitative matter. The results of this study urges evaluation of scientific teams to include criteria that focus on the potential for interactive dynamics that are not beholden solely by individuals and their own capabilities but rather are products of collaborations.

The most obvious benefit of considering teams in this light may be that of evaluation which until lately have been focused on the long-term impacts of research collaboratives on communities and the outcomes of science. Rather, what is being suggested here are methodologies to evaluate the effectiveness of teams in light of their internal properties to measure if certain dynamics are at play that may yield better or more desired outcomes in teams with the ability to weather complex and chaotic environments. This is a notion that may not be apparently optimum in situations of scientific advancement but for funders, accrediting agencies, and certifiers, this approach may better serve their attempts at identifying truly outstanding and productive working groups especially in projects with large scale and multistakeholder significance. Measures of program success may be designed that emphasize internal team mechanism and dynamics and their collaborative potentially to bridge with community partners based on their ability to work as productive teams.

There is a serious preoccupation when establishing teams that they reach certain criteria of inter- or transdisciplinary as if these modalities have prescribed characteristics that can be replicated. Much of scientific communities like those similar to the one described here believe that discovery and application are more likely to come about through inter- and transdisciplinary teaming. This may well be the case; however, exactly how this occurs is less an issue of antecedents and requirements as it is about interactions and operative mechanisms as this study suggests. This line of thinking proposes that different types of collaboration yield different types of outcomes.[78] These results underscore that if inter- and transdisciplinary teams are to be the future hallmark of certain scientific team structures, emphasis needs to be place on the identification of the social mechanism and dynamics that clearly identify a team as such and not solely by an evaluation of lists of antecedent conditions and evidence of quantifiable outcomes that “should” yield innovative impacts as many granting agencies now require.

Though not a focal point of the research, there are a number of implications this research yields regarding the subject of leadership in teams. The data represents interesting suggestions about the role of high influence leaders and what the possible implications of their attitudes about team culture can have on the outcomes and processes of the team. Further analysis of this data focusing on power differentials, especially in light of the double stratification (role and discipline) delineations may suggest promise in understanding further how different types of power like reward power, coercive power, expert power, legitimate power, and referent power[79] when coupled with personal attributes, organizational structures, and situational requirements are combined.[80] Analysis could be conducted using the existing data to develop a thesis on how power contributes to the achievement of collaboration or cooperation while simultaneously including discourse on individual and distributed leadership development.

Participants have shown to rely on interactions and career-long involvement in teams to properly develop skills and knowledge about what is needed to be productive and successful team science members. Unilaterally, most participants offered that developmental training had only a minimal impact on preparing them for the types of interactions that team science required of them. Transversely, most participants exposited that the learning experienced through interactions was invaluable and a culmination of experiential learning episodes over time. The results from the study call into question some of the more traditional avenues still in place that serve as preservice training venues for team scientists and how these could be altered and/or further developed.

One consideration is discourse over the value of guided and unguided mentorship. As many academics and professionals would admittedly state, mentorship is an important part of the apprenticeship process into communities of professions that operate from explicit and tacit operating rules. Mentoring serves as a means by which young professionals can reap the experience and wisdom of senior personnel that possess the latent knowledge of procedures, mental constructs, and practical awareness to be a successful participant. Navigating this multiplicity can require skills and awarenesses often not mastered by new members of teams.[81] Transdisciplinary teams, with their complex environments and multivalue situations require both experiential learning opportunities (less mentored) and/or the guidance of mentors familiar with the complex nature of these new transdisciplinary environments for success career building.

One aspect in need of further investigation is the readiness and emotional security necessary for such team interactions which as we have seen can be challenging and latent with conflict and tension.[82, 83] These dynamics once identified and defined in research like this study can become competence-based objectives for training so that new team members as well as those continuing on their journey of self learning in science teams can be more optimally prepared for these types of interactions.

Similarly, the latent values that can be measured as proven in this study can become part of the repertoire of training and education for team members. Like the readiness and emotional factors listed above, an inventory of values can serve as a means to help teams diagnose their own direction and the possible embedded barriers and strengths that impact their ability to meet their goals.

Matters of integration, praxis, and engagement always challenge the achievement of transdisciplinarity. Many scholars have conjectured solutions to these barriers. As these are practical challenges rather than theoretical ones, it is fitting that we take a practical approach to them.

Integration in transdisciplinary teams is the challenge of bringing multiple stakeholders and thought streams into the complex awareness of the multilevel conversation of a problem. Scholars have offered many solutions all of which recommend that solutions stem from proposing unity within the chaos of multiple realities. Such approaches tend to dilute the very nature of complex communities and emphasize coherence[84] and common vocabularies[85-87] as solutions. While these solutions may provide clarity to the practical problems of integration, this study has shown that other yet emphasized matters may better assist in achieving this goal. These are those that ensure that teams are in constant interaction and measured on the social mechanism that serve as drivers of their internal and external engagements. Though not exclusive to the solutions offered by others, the mechanism and dynamics identified in this study offer a socially based solution to what has traditionally been considered a more cognitive problem.

The challenge of praxis is not unique to scientific teams nor is it easily understood on a practical level because of its emphasis on the application of theory in practical situations. However the achievement of bridging theoretic constructs with transdisciplinary activity should be a goal of teams who strive for transdisciplinary endeavors.[88] As such, this study can only contribute to the problem of this challenge an awareness of the importance of the inter-team complexities that are found in the social mechanisms described and what they may contribute to the implementation of praxis as a model within transdisciplinary teams. If praxis is to be a normative model, the solutions will need to consider what the social dynamics bring to this endeavor instead of focusing solely on the problem of blending theory with practice.

An example of this challenge is embodied in our interpretations of the theoretical value of teamwork itself in light of taskwork as an operative imperative in teams. Within collaborative work, teamworking is, practically speaking, a group's ability to work together and is represented in terms of certain meso level activities such as communication and coordination types and the abilities associated with group awareness. These, like this research suggests come from theoretical conjectures about what the meaning and role of teams are in themselves and the role of the invidividual as a dynamic entity with them. Taskworking, or the collection of activities associated with reaching group goals, a more micro-macro level orientation, is a collection of competencies required so that tasks can actually get done and thus achieve macro level expectations.[80] Note-taking, concept organization, projecting, and delegating, for instance, are such competencies required by team members so that teams goals may be achieved to a certain quality, or within a timely manner, or in tandem with other tasks or projects. These are a far cry from mapping the interactive qualities or dynamics that teams possess that may lead them to answer more relevant and complex problems.

These distinctions have implications for both theory and practice. The differential of knowledge, its meaning, transfer, and emergence within teams becomes an important consideration in light of desired practical outcomes of team science. Teamworking and coordinating activities possess the ability for knowledge to be a contributing factor to process goals.[13, 89, 90] These may be desired team dynamics like those that make up the social mechanism identified through this study. The conditions of teams and tasks are not mutually exclusive of each other but are complementary. Teams can not however be measured with the same tools as task. Conclusions about teaming dynamics can not be static, unyielding, and too easily generalizable between different situations. Instead they need to be descriptions of vacilating and energenic tendencies that keep teams on the “edge of chaos.” Team science should emphasize the adaptive nature of teamworking as defined here with its emphasis on dynamical elements.

The final challenge of engagement assumes that individual participants in teams will be required to express beyond their mere role and disciplinary representation on teams to a level that transcends such contributions. The developmental aspect of team engagement that enables growth and the awareness of the multiplicities embedded in team endeavors should test frames of reference, values, beliefs, and assumptions while certain problems are being solved. This is the micro/meso engagement that binds individuals to their teams and ensures ongoing development. The social dynamics found at play within this research team prove that such aspects of teaming are naturally emergent elements of collaboration.


The assumptions, methodology, and findings of this study present in themselves an important challenge if the dynamical inquiry is expected to inform and expand global exploration of team science's potential. A barrier within itself, it represents a major characteristic of TS that hampers the expansion of research lenses on this important subject. Much of the problem with conducting multi-level research that makes multimethological associations is its only marginal acceptance into some fields that are only very slowly and reluctantly accepting trends toward transdisciplinary TS. Some of the choices of this study were made with this barrier in mind as purely qualitative research still struggles for a clear voice amidst those from the biomedical sciences. This is and will continue to be an important challenge for those of us who continue to introduce this sort of research into the biomedical fields, and ultimately into the emerging interdisciplines of team and translational sciences.


Acknowledgement should be given to the team who without hesitation shared their experiences and deeply felt opinions. For the sake of anonymity, they are not mentioned by name in this paper. In addition I would like to acknowledge Drs. Paige McDonald, Ozgur Eckmecki, Ellen Costello, and Ken Harwood for their assistance in the preparation of the manuscript.

Conflict of Interest

No conflict of interest to declare.

Sources of funding


  1. *“a property of” a dynamic is a characteristic or it. In this case, failure is a property of compromise as failure (or the avoidance of failure) can be a contributing factor to compromise.