When there is no “we” in faculty: 4 approaches to faculty teamwork

The old saying says there is no “I” in “teamwork.”  What do you do when there is no “we” in faculty?

Since leaving the University of Illinois in December 2010, I’ve worked at a number of universities around the world to help bring transformative change to engineering education.  Transformative change and routine business as usual are very different things.  In the usual routine setting of the university, great individual performance by faculty members is expected and often delivered.  Faculty run their courses, their labs, hire and fire their graduate students and the system proceeds.  Occasionally faculty members are required to get together and “collaborate” on committees, but even there, most university committees are less teams and more like working groups, where individuals can assemble their work product relatively independently.  The situation is so common as to not require comment; however, if you are trying to bring about change in the university, the lack of teamwork chops among faculty can be a showstopper.

In change initiatives, something new is being created and oftentimes there are joint curricular and cultural decisions to make together.  In general, there is more need for common purpose, cooperation, and collaboration than in the usual routine setting, but given the lack of experience in working together faculty members are ill-equipped to interact effectively enough to get the job done.  

So what can be done?  Here we consider 4 possibilities:

Notice & acknowledge the cultural shift.  Moving from a routine, individualistic culture to a startup, team-oriented culture can be deeply disorienting and a difficult adjustment.  To notice and acknowledge the difference is the first step to doing anything about it.  Reflecting on Schein’s model of culture (here) is helpful to understanding the obstacles to shifting gears. 

Use individual performance when possible  Getting individual performers to become great team performers overnight is difficult, especially in an individualistic culture.  To the extent possible, if the task can be broken into small pieces, do so.  You’ll play to the strengths of your actors.

Go with pairwork or very small teams to start.  Going cold turkey to large teams is often too hard.  Instead move to the smallest unit of collaboration, the pair.  I’ve coined the term pairwork and written (here) about the value of using pairs and small teams in educational and interdisciplinary initiatives.  Once people get their teamwork legs under them, you can move to larger teams. 

Provide principled teamwork training.  Faculty can be rough on fluffy trainers, so give them some red meat by talking about speech acts (requests & commitments) and some simple team ground rules to help provide some structure.  Using facilitated team meetings or team coaching is another way to go, if the resources, both financial and human, are available.

Moving from “I” to “we” in a university setting isn’t easy, but there are times when it is necessary, and some of the suggestions here should be helpful to making the experience more productive.