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The Art (and Science) of Collaboration

For solutions-oriented researchers, collaboration on and off campus is essential. Yet many scholars find traditional academic training hasn’t equipped them with the tools and perspectives needed to work across disciplines and sectors. That’s where the Leading Interdisciplinary Collaborations (LInC) program comes in. The new Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment program coaches early- and mid-career Stanford faculty on collective leadership, an approach that inverts traditional academic norms of one-way knowledge sharing.

“Instead of doing the research and then telling people what you’ve found, we’re saying go to people first and co-design research to meet their questions and concerns,” said Margaret Krebs, director of the Leopold Leadership Program, a training program for North American environmental researchers and inspiration for LInC. “That cooperative approach harnesses the strengths of a group, whether it’s in the lab or in the field where researchers are teaming up with stakeholders to solve real-world problems.”

The cooperative spirit of inquiry at the heart of Leopold and LInC’s leadership framework begins with crossing academic disciplines. Such collaborations can be hobbled by widely varying disciplinary perspectives that come with unique lingo and jargon, privilege certain types of knowledge over others, and have different norms and values. Broader traditional academic structures – which reward a focus on obtaining grants and publishing papers – also get in the way.

“To make their work actionable in the real world, researchers have to become adept at a more fluid, systems-transforming collaboration,” said Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty director of the Stanford Woods Institute. “I’ve seen this first-hand, thanks to my own experience as a Leopold Leadership fellow years ago.”

Despite the obstacles, many scientists have come to see the imperative of getting interdisciplinary and cross-sector collaborations right in order to solve highly complex issues, such as environmental challenges.

“There’s a greater realization now that to work on environmental problems, you have to work on who’s driving it,” said Hal Mooney, a Stanford ecologist who has studied the relationship of humans and the environment for almost 60 years. “The human impact has become so massive and widespread.”

Through an initial three-day retreat followed by regular gatherings, LInC will create an environment that allows faculty to reflect, ask questions, take risks, experiment and practice new leadership, collaboration and systems thinking skills. Participants will:

  • Deepen awareness of their leadership style, identify areas for growth and development and create sustaining practices.
  • Learn how to engage a group of people, and enable them to think together by asking questions and initiating dialogue.
  • Use a framework and tools to diagnose and design systems that inspire innovative, creative and collaborative research projects.
  • Create a personal development plan to practice LInC tools, and use them in a range of collaborations.

A collaborative approach values working together over status or roles, empathy over certainty, and diverse stakeholders over experts. In this model, a leader mobilizes a group to action by steering people toward a shared vision. This involves navigating conflict through an iterative process that enables people to serve in their most effective operational roles. Knowledge alone is not the mark of growth, but self-awareness and reflection on learning. The outcomes are more geared toward tools that enable groups to self-organize and transform systems in a networked way, rather than simply improving personal skills and taking positions as new challenges arise.

A 2017 paper. published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment describes the prioritization of social systems and decision contexts in addressing natural resource management issues. The study highlights key principles of the approach:

  • Interdisciplinary collaboration that integrates all points of view.
  • Strong engagement in partnerships
  • Commitment to participation, accountability and learning
  • Communication aimed at crafting approaches for developing new knowledge and translating results.
  • Participatory and transparent processes involving a diversity of participants representing information needs and social context.
  • Framing around the needs and values of beneficiaries and decision-makers.

These principles came from organizational development practitioners and thought leaders who saw the need for a new model of leadership to handle complex, multifaceted issues involving networks of people and organizations. Pam Matson, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor in Environmental Studies at Stanford, was among the pioneers of this approach. “Pursing Sustainability,” a book Matson coauthored, calls for collaborative “sustainability science” to connect discoveries with needs.

“The ability to understand and respect other kinds of knowledge and different ways of knowing, and to recognize how they intersect and interact with one’s own, is a central component of most of the effective efforts we know to link knowledge with action for sustainability,” Matson and her coauthors write.

(Read more about LInC.)

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