The Problem: Complex problems require complex responses, and these increasingly involve interdisciplinary and interprofessional teams because they can increase the number of perspectives brought to bear on a problem. But harnessing the different perspectives in these teams is challenging, in part because these different perspectives typically come with different assumptions, jargon, values, and priorities, all of which are a tacit part of the research background. As a result, team members can come into conflict without appreciating the differences that generate it.
The Response: For a team to work effectively, it can help to collectively foreground these differences, making them available for consideration so that each team member can come to see their project through each other’s eyes. An especially effective vehicle for this consideration is dialogue that is structured to illuminate potential differences. This sort of dialogue is a collaborative learning opportunity wherein each team member is both teacher and student as they collectively examine their research and professional worldviews.
The Toolbox Dialogue Initiative: The Toolbox Dialogue Initiative is an NSF-sponsored initiative that studies and facilitates communication in collaborative, cross-disciplinary research and practice. We have developed a specific version of the dialogue-based response to the challenge of communicating across disciplines and professions that focuses on foundational assumptions about research and practice. Using the “Toolbox” instrument in a workshop setting, we facilitate dialogues among team members designed to reveal unobserved differences and similarities that can impede collaborative decision-making.
The Toolbox Instrument: The Toolbox instrument is a survey device comprising potentially divisive prompts that articulate normative assumptions. These prompts are associated with Likert scales that rate participant agreement (strongly disagree to strongly agree), and they are orga-nized into “modules” that correspond to important dimensions of a collaborative project (e.g., values, methodology, confirmation, modeling).
The Toolbox Workshop: Members of a collaborative research or practice team gather for a workshop in which they discuss aspects of their research or professional worldviews that are illuminated by the Toolbox instrument. Participants begin by indicating their level of agreement with each prompt, and then discuss the issues raised by the prompts for up to two hours in a lightly facilitated dialogue. Participants often discover differences and similarities that surprise them, and it is not uncommon for disagreement to lead to negotiation and compromise.
Project Impact: The Toolbox Dialogue Initiative has conducted over 210 workshops internationally with over 1,400 participants. It has produced 16 peer-reviewed publications and over 100 presentations. We have worked to build collaborative capacity in research groups that operate in many domains, including academic science, community resiliency, and regional sustainability.