The challenge of team-building
What happens when you bring 25 scientists from 17 different countries and 18 disciplines together in an intensive six-month training programme on participatory research methods? Two months into the ICRA (International Centre for Development-Oriented Research in Agriculture) training, exhaustion is setting in, the shine is rubbing off, but the belief in a valuable experience is still strong: We are learning a lot about diplomacy.
Learning to work in teams is an important component of the ICRA programme and presents a big challenge to participants. An initiative of the European members of CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research), ICRA calls for a new approach to research. Its reasoning is that good agricultural development will only come about if researchers are able to communicate well with people outside their specialisations, such as other researchers, policy-makers, and above all, with farmers
Catherine Allen, a participant from the UK, relates a message coming out of one of the programme's team-building workshops: There are four phases to team-building: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. In the beginning, everyone is new and people show their best side as they get to know one another. In the storming phase, the shine of newness fades. True personalities come out, and conflicts arise. Emerging from the storm, norming sets in. Mutual understanding of how people work and fit into a group is built up. Ideally, the team eventually reaches the performing phase, at which point the team functions well. Allen adds, laughing: We seem to be in the storming phase at the moment.
Now in its 18th year and based in Wageningen, ICRA provides two six-month programmes for agricultural researchers from around the world: one in English in Wageningen and a Francophone programme in Montpellier, France. Beginning with three months in Europe, the course provides practical research tools ranging from stakeholder analysis to effective use of the Internet. For the next three months, the group is divided into four teams which go to different research institutes in developing countries to work on a specific research problem
The Wageningen schedule is intense, five days a week planned full. Juan Ceballos, Anglophone programme coordinator, explains the emphasis on teamwork: Right from the second week, we separate people into groups. We keep switching the teams around for the various assignments so that participants learn to work with different people. This offers many challenges: differences in background, language capability, gender and professional discipline are constantly at play during the programme. For Ceballos, one challenge lies in the fact that in some countries, people are discouraged from speaking their mind. We have introduced feedback exercises to change this situation. Some people don't like to say anything negative, but it is crucial to the field study that people communicate what they are thinking.
Two months into the programme, participants find it an exhausting yet exhilarating experience. Having to work with people from such vastly different backgrounds has opened my mind, says Joseph Okomoda from Nigeria. Anastasia Asongwed from Cameroon has a similar impression: When I came here, I couldn't believe how different we all were. Everyone perceives and attacks a problem in their own way.
Assignments in the first three months are organised to prepare people for the final test in the field. But despite the many team-building exercises, not all teams manage to reach the performing stage during the field assignment. Personality clashes are inevitable in a group, a fact some participants feel should be taken into consideration when determining final team composition
However, ICRA places emphasis on performing interdisciplinary field work. Field teams are chosen to ensure a mix of disciplines even before participants arrive. Ceballos recognises this problem, but does not agree that personality should receive special attention. In real life, you always come up against this problem. People need to learn to be flexible on a professional level and to get things done within a time constraint. They need to let go of ownership over their ideas, and accept that the group might reject an idea.
Habtamu Admassu, from Ethiopia, agrees: It's difficult having to work with people you may not get along with. But ICRA's approach is important - we are learning a lot about diplomacy here. Amunda Salm cerealesbos.nl