Lisa GraumlichInterdisciplinary collaboration is never far from my mind, but I am particularly focused on it this month. In the next four weeks, I will participate in four different strategic planning retreats that run the gamut from the College’s Executive Committee to the Woodland Park Zoo’s Advisory Board. I know many of you are similarly engaged in planning, whether it is the upcoming quarter, new research projects, or broader initiatives. The best planning exercises are those where we pool our diverse expertise and perspectives to tackle really big issues. And the most creative yet durable strategies are those that arise from the cross-pollination of different expertise and points of view.

Stepping back for a moment, what are the risks and rewards of melding multiple points of view in seeking innovative solutions to tough problems? It turns out that there are scholars who ask this very question—and come up with surprising results. Professor Lee Fleming (Director of the Coleman Fung Institute of Engineering Leadership at UC Berkeley) addressed the practical question of the true value of interdisciplinary teams by tracking the financial value of over 17,000 patents that were the product of teams of varying disciplinary breadth. His results, in the graph below, show that, on average, the highest value products come from teams with closely aligned expertise. When teams are composed of widely varying disciplinary expertise, the likelihood of insignificant findings is increased. But, notice the handful of dots in the upper right hand corner, labeled “breakthrough.” While relatively rare, Fleming’s research indicates that most transformative innovations come from the most diverse teams. Think Manhattan Project, The Natural Capital Project, or One Health.

Reprinted with permission from "Perfecting Cross-Pollination" by Lee Fleming.  Harvard Business Review, September 2004.
Harvard Business Review
Reprinted with permission from “Perfecting Cross-Pollination” by Lee Fleming. Harvard Business Review, September 2004.

If I extend this thinking to the College, I recognize that we absolutely need strong teams with closely aligned expertise to push our disciplines forward. Investments we make in interdisciplinary research, pursuing breakthrough science and solutions, necessarily carry the risk of failure. How to mitigate that risk? Fleming observed that collaboration among more established and well-understood fields are more likely to yield innovations. In addition, fewer failures occur among teams of people who each have deep—rather than broad—expertise in their respective disciplines. Finally, tenacity and patience are key: breakthroughs don’t happen overnight.

I believe we’re on the right path at the College of the Environment. Our faculty are pursuing breakthrough solutions in several arenas, with highly interdisciplinary teams of people who each have deep expertise.   Among the many examples I could point to are the Ocean Observatories Initiative, M9 Cascadia megaquakes project, Washington Ocean Acidification Center, and the Future of Ice. Of course we are taking calculated risks. That is because, as a College, we are committed to pursuing science that will have impact on the scientific community and the world at large.

I am dedicated to providing ongoing support for these efforts. As a scholar, my most challenging and rewarding projects have been those that transcend disciplinary boundaries; one example is when I, as part of a larger group, sought to understand why some societies collapse in the face of environmental challenges while other flourish. As an academic leader at UW, I understand that interdisciplinary research, teaching and engagement are at the forefront of our work. As a Dean who believes this is a critical part of our College fabric, I pledge to work with you to ensure that we are making wise investments that put us on a path to breakthrough discoveries.


Lisa Graumlich
Dean, College of the Environment
Virginia and Prentice Bloedel Professor