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Systemic, Theme-Centred, Peer-Led: Adapting Groupwork Concepts for Collaboration Management in the Digital Humanities

Published onMar 30, 2023
Systemic, Theme-Centred, Peer-Led: Adapting Groupwork Concepts for Collaboration Management in the Digital Humanities

Collaboration Management

Research conducted in the digital humanities (DH) is often based on the collaboration and co-production of different disciplines and cultures within project settings. Collaboration is regarded as one of the core values of the discipline (The Digital Humanities; Spiro) and the topic of overarching approaches defining the field (Deegan and McCarty; Klein). At the same time, it has given rise to a general concern as some collaborative efforts in DH have failed to meet expectations (Poole 104). Interdisciplinary teams face numerous challenges. As there is a fundamental need to manage the collaborative work (Siemens et al.), project management in DH largely consists of collaboration management. While collaboration is valued in the disciplinary discourse, it is still regarded as “underdiscussed,” at least methodologically (Griffin and Hayler, para.1). The project management approaches for DH focus on dealing with different individuals, skill sets, and preconditions in teams. This is done either through the application of theoretical concepts, such as role-based project design (Tabak), tools, and in-person interactions (Siemens, “Time”) or of methods and best practices from a community of practice, such as short-term DH projects in large collaborative research settings (Neubert). Less frequently discussed, however, are the DH project managers themselves and the required skills. As an intermediary, the DH project manager often combines perspectives from both “H” and “D” domains in order to bridge disciplinary differences (Edmond). While the tasks are explicitly defined, such as moderation, translation, mediation, conflict resolution, or communication, how the associated skills are learned or taught, or theoretical concepts upon which they are based, remain unclear or only implicit. In this article, we highlight three theories and concepts from other domains focusing on communication and collaboration, while addressing the understanding and handling of social interactions within groups. The authors’ motivation for this article is based on an interest in reflecting on their own work in the digital humanities and examining methods from other fields as a way to develop a specific and differentiated project management approach for DH.

A key criterion for selecting the methods was therefore that all concepts were developed from areas outside the humanities and traditional project management. As these concepts originate in communication science, psychology, and the social sciences and, moreover, were developed for areas like consulting, supervision or therapy, not only their practical implementation but also their underlying goals and target groups must be analyzed and modified to make them applicable for use in collaboration management in the digital humanities with its digital, collaborative, project-based challenges. The adaptation in DH projects is targeted for different scenarios: analyzing situations, supporting teamwork, and self-reflection about the management approach. The following concepts will be discussed:

1) Systemic Thinking offers a framework for understanding individuals, their motivations, and their interactions within complex systems such as interdisciplinary research projects.

2) Theme-Centred Interaction (TCI) is a concept for working in groups aiming at social learning and individual development; it is crucial both in academia and in particular within DH projects that bring together diverse skills, cultures, and interests.

3) Peer Group Intervision is a method for a structured leaderless consultation within one’s own peer group, providing a form of reflection and support for the (often) lone project managers.

This article presents an overview of each of the three concepts by introducing the basic ideas and their origins, while providing references to key sources and introductory texts for further reading. Although all three concepts are more common in German-speaking countries or Continental Europe, we include here English-speaking literature on the respective methods as there are identifiable Anglo-American roots, developments, and related strands. By putting a spotlight on selected aspects from these concepts and their relation to DH project management, this article seeks to advance the discussion on professionalizing the collaboration management tasks of counseling and mediation as theory-based and method-driven activities.

Systemic Thinking

On the Origin of Systemic Thinking

“Systemic Thinking” describes an approach to addressing complex problems or, more generally speaking, to understand phenomena within a system and its components. However, the term is not clearly defined, nor is it possible to identify clear boundaries between the concept itself and methods which aim to apply it. In the following, Systemic Thinking is understood and examined as a source of impulses for developing project management approaches. It is derived from the theoretical concepts developed in family therapy combining communication science, psychotherapy, sociology, cybernetics, and biology. Systemic Thinking is largely based on various theories and approaches from the field of systems theory, though not exclusively.

The concept of cybernetics was introduced in the 1940s to describe the triggering and regulating effects within systems. The feedback regarding actions provides inputs for further action and has application (second-order cybernetics) within social systems (sociocybernetics). Gregory Bateson combined general systems theory (GST; coined by Ludwig von Bertalanffy) and cybernetics. He further introduced metacommunication, which includes non-verbal signals. Metacommunicative information indicates how to interpret a message, which can either support or contradict the verbal information (Carr 15). Bateson also influenced a large number of researchers and had a revolutionary impact in psychology and psychoanalysis. For instance, the work of the Palo Alto Working Group headed by Paul Watzlawick—titled Pragmatics of Human Communication. A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes—contributed to challenging outdated behavioural therapy and client-centred psychotherapy. It provided a foundation for the development of systemic therapy, which is founded on communication, and changed the perspective towards social issues and relations, thereby expanding the understanding of the individual to their social context (Ludewig 177–178).

The idea that living systems can be characterized through their processes and organization rather than their attributes was introduced by Chilean biologists Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela in 1972 (Maturana and Varela) and is a foundational concept in Systemic Thinking. In this context, autopoietic organization implies that systems can only undergo changes of state that they determine themselves. As a consequence, human beings are not “instructable”; while behaviour is triggered, it is also not entirely determined from outside or caused by others (Leyland 360–361). For human beings, perception is effectively a process of constructing reality through description. Communicating these descriptions is a way of connecting these individual perspectives.

Beyond these individual cognitive and linguistic processes, the work on social systems by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann contributed to Systemic Thinking an understanding of complex social systems as connected instances of communication. Communication consists of “the unity of the difference among three selections: utterance (Mitteilung), information, and understanding (Verstehen) of the difference between utterance and information” (Baraldi et al. 45). Ludewig summarizes the implementation of Systemic Thinking in psychotherapy as a nexus of communication:

A significant advantage of the takeover of Systemic Thinking was relieving psychotherapy from its historically established exclusive embedding in analytical and objectivist thinking. Considering the fact that man can only be understood appropriately with the inclusion of the diverse systems that constitute them—biological, mental and social systems—psychotherapy should be understood as a comprehensive social exchange between similarly complex multi-system bio-psycho-social units, namely—people. (Ludewig 202)

Adapting Systemic Thinking to Digital Humanities Research

A digital humanities research project is not a therapy session; a project manager is not a therapist. However, systemic family therapy is not a traditional therapy either. The theories and practices of Systemic Thinking were developed to shift the goal from treating the symptoms of problems to finding solutions through communication. This approach can be applied to project management in collaborative research settings when it comes to strengthening interdisciplinary communication. Following the systemic view, everything that takes place in managing research projects is essentially communication. People working in research projects are confronted with paradoxes, such as the uncertainty of results due to the desired high degree of innovation and the need for strict work plans and guidelines in order to embed projects in an organizational structure and in funding frameworks. In addition, the habit of institutions of protecting their own autonomy within settings that require strong commitment and less autonomy from the partners must be taken into account (Brocke and Lippe 10–12).

In her analysis of a group processes in an international, interdisciplinary research team, Christiane Müller identifies the lack of structured reflection loops about group processes as a risk and calls for dedicated support, i.e., collaboration management (Müller). She identifies the systemic view as an important instrument of analysis, as it enables a manager or any team member to change their own frame of reference. By either reducing or increasing complexity in this way, they are able to focus on communicative activities in the team process and to view the actors in their specific personal and professional context. While Systemic Thinking does not provide an implementable methodology that advances or extends a project management toolbox, it widens the viewpoint concerning the conceptual levels of project design and practical situations in routine settings.

Digital humanities projects face challenges of collaboration. The need for coordination is often not recognized, resulting in a failure to shift perspective between disciplines to recognize the different constructions of reality, e.g., through vocabularies. The latter appear on the project level (Siemens et al.) but are also in the setting of the larger scholarly research ecosystem, such as economic pressure or building infrastructure for its own sake (Edmond 62–63). A mapping of Anne Balsamo’s virtues of ethical interdisciplinary research (3) illustrates the implementation of Systemic Thinking at the level of a shared mindset within a research project. In the following, Balsamo’s virtues are explained using principles taken from Systemic Thinking and related to project management:

  • Intellectual Generosity, a genuine acknowledgement of others’ work, is based on unprejudiced, unconditional appreciation related to the person in question and an appreciative formulation of others’ ideas (which still should be challenged).

  • Intellectual Confidence, a belief that everyone has something important to contribute, is reflected in the view that all individuals, as autopoietic systems, have access to resources that can change their state.

  • Intellectual Humility, a recognition that one’s knowledge is always partial and incomplete and can always be extended and revised by others’ insights, is inherent to the process of reality construction through description.

  • Intellectual Flexibility, the ability to change one’s perspective, especially due to new insights from others, involves the exchange of one’s own constructions of reality through communication.

  • Intellectual Integrity, the habit of responsible participation, is an important part of the concept of social systems as constructed through communication (including action and habits).

These virtues and principles are not directly implementable, but instead subjects of scholarly discussion and objects of comparison for one's own practices or other principles in the field. For example, a project team may talk about intellectual generosity within the “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights” (Clement et al. 6–7), aimed at creating a shared understanding or statement for one’s own project. The System Thinking approach offers a way to understand social systems on a team level within more complex organizational systems. Individuals can grasp or even challenge their own role while accepting the behaviour of others. Moreover, if the mindset is shared, Systemic Thinking forms a part of a common ground for collaboration.

Selected Concepts of Systemic Thinking Useful for Managing DH projects

Although System Thinking does not offer directly applicable methods as a mindset, the authors selected the following leitmotifs relevant to DH project settings:

All Behaviour Makes Sense in Context

The idea of viewing behaviour as logical within its context is a principle shared throughout the Palo Alto Group. Even highly unusual (i.e., non-conventional) behaviour is logical and meaningful as it is emerging from a system’s relationships and preconditions (Ray). By taking this non-normative view, a project manager can more easily recognize and even accept behaviour that may seem irrational and that contradicts established project goals or policies. This, in turn, may facilitate conflict moderation by keeping interactions and communications respectful. The focus is shifted here from the behaviour to the context. Insofar as alternative behaviours can be sought within the context rather than preventing (or sanctioning) certain behaviours, issues arising from conflicting behaviours can be addressed more effectively. In digital humanities projects, behavioural contexts may be determined by interdisciplinary research design, disciplinary traditions, institutional or department hierarchies, the socio-economic conditions in the academic system, etc.

Do Not Fix What’s Broken. Find out What Works—and Do More of It

Systemic therapy is solution-focused and resource-oriented. The basic idea of the former is to identify (parts of) the solution rather than to analyze the problem (De Shazer and Berg). The basic idea of the latter is to find and strengthen people’s resources and enable them to find solutions themselves (Herwig-Lempp 21, 44). In academic work and the field of digital humanities, this principle calls for more flexibility and experimentation in contrast to standardized approaches or so-called best-practices—both at the level of research and project design. For example, the introduction of an issue tracking system for monitoring tasks in a collaborative project is a best practice, which nevertheless may fail. This is because, among other reasons, “entrenched work habits are difficult to change” (Reed, para. 33). From a systemic view, the project management goal would be to look more closely at the existing work habits and consider how they can be used as a basis or at least integrated in workflows for monitoring tasks (even does not involve using state-of-the-art tools). A workflow for collaborative teamwork which the team members have designed themselves is more likely to be used and thus more efficient in practice.

Looping Contracts

In systemic therapy settings, expectations, goals, and tasks are made explicit and transparent to all parties, resulting in a contract. However, as this approach is more of a process than a product, “contracting” is a continuous task. Whenever something in the context changes, this affects the contract and necessitates a re-evaluation. In this context, the concept of “looping contracts” can be valuable for project management. While research projects are fixed at the beginning, they can subsequently undergo a lot of changes regarding methods, experiments, discovering data, fluctuation in personnel, etc. Negotiation is time-consuming, but unsolved issues lead to even more time-consuming conflicts. Within the digital humanities community, project charters have been established as contracts (Siemens, “Project Management” 351–353). Adding iterations to these charters, which are either triggered by changes in the setting or planned reviews (which may discover an unnoticed change), would allow them to become continuous points of reference. The resulting ongoing discussion would foster communication (Hjartarson et al. 43), thus creating the social system of the team.

Theme-Centred Interaction

The theme-centred interactional method (TCI), created by Ruth Charlotte Cohn, has been established in many professional contexts for almost sixty years as a way of working with groups (Cohn; Rudestam). Psychotherapy, counselling, supervision, organizational development, social work, management, schools, adult education, and vocational training are just a few of the numerous disciplines where it is used (Meyerhuber et al.; Schneider-Landolf et al.). With their collaborative and multidisciplinary frameworks, digital humanities projects place a strong emphasis on the research team as a “success factor.” To address the question, “How do people work together in these sorts of projects?” TCI offers a methodology that promotes productive and fulfilling teamwork.

Before discussing the origins and basic principles of TCI, it should be noted that it was created during the zeitgeist of the 1960s, then transformed and brought to Europe in the 1970s. Some of the original formulations of the factors, axioms, and postulates may be unfamiliar to today's readers. Nonetheless, the core of this method holds potential for anyone intending to blend technology and human factors—as with collaboration in DH. In contrast to Systemic Thinking, which first of all allows for an understanding of complex interrelations and concrete actions within a social/communicative system, TCI offers theoretical and methodological grounding for a collaborative concept that accounts for the aforementioned complexity of DH projects.


Since the mid-1990s, based on the various experiences and demands gathered in the different fields, TCI has developed into a concept that is used to construct social situations. It is used today, among other things, to guide teams and steer cooperative processes. The theoretical basis of TCI lies in a four-factor model, specifically axioms and postulates which describe the processes and interactions active in social and “living/learning situations” (Jones and Stanford 203).

The Four-Factor Model:

  • I: The “I” stands for the behaviour and personality of the individual group member; each ego feels unique and subjective.

  • We: The “We,” the project team, emerges in the process of interaction. In the dynamics and the culture of those involved; it is not only shaped by the individual “I’s” and thereby more than their sum, but it also changes with each “I.”

  • Theme (it): The subject matter is the DH project the group is concerned with; “it” is the reason why the involved individuals have decided to collaborate in the first place.

  • Globe: The circumstances or conditions under which group actions take place; the direct surroundings, weather, timing constraints; the whole universe. For DH projects, parts of the “Globe” include the project structure, the available technologies, or even the specific workspaces.

These four factors carry equal weight. TCI aims to create a dynamic balance between these factors which enables transparent interaction, open communication, and successful collaboration. This model offers a concept for action for the work in the group. At the same time, project work according to TCI is not a process according to a “democratic” model, where it is sufficient if the majority is present. Instead, all project members must have an affirmative relation to the task. The process here is about finding the central theme and choosing the right structures and the appropriate working and social forms.

In reflecting on our work in DH projects and attempting to transfer the model we have presented here, it is clear that the project itself is only one of four factors. However, project plans and project management measures often reflect this one factor exclusively. In addition to being a concept for action, the four-factor model described here can also be used as a diagnostic tool. By asking questions derived from the model (e.g., “What is the ‘theme’?” or “How does a certain ‘I’ behave in the project group?”) and challenging the status quo, conflicts and crises in the project can be structured and thus better dealt with.

The Axioms

TCI is also based upon three basic axioms which form a kind of ethical foundation. They summarize basic beliefs about the interdependence of humans and the world, about there being only a restricted autonomy (which grows along with an awareness of the interdependency), and about the value of all life.

  • Existential-Anthropological Axiom: “The human being is a psycho-biological entity. He/she is also part of the universe, and therefore at once autonomous and interdependent. The person's autonomy increases to the extent that she/he becomes conscious of being interdependent (being part of the universe)” (Cohn 120).

  • Ethical Axiom: “Respect is due to all living entities and to their growth. Respecting growth requires decisions based on values. The humane is valuable, the inhumane is threatening” (Cohn 120).

  • Pragmatic-Political Axiom: “A free decision happens within conditioning internal and external limits. It is possible to expand these limits” (Cohn 120).

For Cohn, this foundation of TCI—reflecting a worldview, a perspective on humanity, a way of thinking—is “irreducible.” To her, the formulation of these three axioms is fundamental in nature and applies regardless of context.

The Postulates

Based upon this foundation there is a level of methodical postulates, a level of (interaction-) methods and, lastly, a level of interaction rules. By now, these two postulates are well-known and have been adopted by many group methods.

  • Chairperson Postulate: “Be your own chairman, the chairman of yourself. This means: (a) Be aware of your inner reality and of your environment. (b) Consider every situation to be a proposition for your decisions. Take and give as befits being responsible for yourself and for others” (Cohn 120).

  • Disturbance Postulate: “Note the hindrances along your way, both your own and those of others. Disturbances take precedence; failing to solve them prevents or delays growth” (Cohn 121).

The suggestion to “be your own chairperson” calls upon the individual to be aware of their own feelings, needs, and the outer environment and to decide responsibly for themselves and others. This implies perceiving and respecting others as individuals and taking oneself, others, and related pursuits seriously. The assumption that “disturbances take precedence” conveys how hidden disturbances can interfere with group processes. They distract and absorb energy; they hinder a person from being fully present, which can result in a hidden agenda. For focused and productive group work to be possible, disturbances have to be noticed, voiced, and—if necessary—remedied.

Leadership and TCI

These axioms and their related postulates are synergized by the principle of participative leadership. In this style of leadership, also known as “democratic leadership,” everyone is encouraged to participate. Project members work together to make decisions. The project leader is responsible for creating and maintaining the environment and conditions surrounding the research (Siemens, “‘It’s a Team’” 231). The project leader thus faces the special challenge of being a member and leader of the team at the same time. They also have greater communication demands, as the team must realize in each case which role the project leader currently embodies.

Figure 1: Four-factor model (after Cohn 1984)

The project leader is tasked with achieving a balance between the above-mentioned factors in the four-factor model. Ideally, this is not accomplished by simply “ordering” the axioms and postulates, but by exemplifying a certain attitude. More concretely, the project leader must, among other things, bring about a consensus on the values and rules in the team. To this end, it is necessary to see the various “I”s in relation to the “theme,” to note the dynamics of the group, the “We,” and to keep a close eye on the conditions of the “Globe.” The four-factor model enables project leaders to differentiate between these perspectives and take a holistic view. It is generally helpful for management tasks in complex project settings (van de Braak 289).

Thoughts on Adapting TCI

To apply TCI in a DH project, a certain degree of openness towards this unfamiliar method and its specific vocabulary is required. It is therefore important to read TCI’s critique of rationality against the social backdrop of the 1950s and 1960s. It is also necessary to adapt and update the psychoanalytic components in the basic texts of TCI, which are intended to shed light on the irrational influences of our habitual thought processes. This is especially true, of course, when communicating to team members, since some of the working techniques used in TCI may be met with skepticism or resistance. The effort to deal with these disturbances, however, can be placed in the TCI context (see the “Disturbance Postulate” discussed above) and conceived as a way to introduce TCI as a method or as a piece of a larger mosaic of methods. Furthermore, TCI is to be learned and taught in a formal training curriculum; in fact, training in a specialized TCI institute is recommended. As a result, one may not be able to fully introduce TCI to research teams in general, but only adapt selected ideas and concepts.

Initially, the TCI concept could be used as a starting point for a team development process. In a moderated team discussion on the axioms and postulates, team members might reflect on their attitudes towards them. This exchange on TCI (as a reference model) encourages participants to describe and question their own processes. As the different perspectives are explicitly cited, the four-factor model can then be used to identify common values, goals, and tasks. This provides a basis for developing a mission statement, a charter, or a self-concept on the team or department level.

TCI is especially useful when it comes to shaping the leadership role. This role, unlike the other concepts presented here, is explicitly addressed in TCI. Significantly, the leadership role is formally found in many DH projects. TCI is not concerned with abolishing hierarchies, a situation that would not be feasible in most of the institutional conditions in which our projects take place. Rather, it redefines the leadership role towards more participative and transparent leadership. However, as concerns the number of people and interests, there are limits to the scalability of this approach. It is thus important to determine the size of the project team where this type of leadership can be beneficially applied.

In interdisciplinary and cross-institutional projects, which are common in the digital humanities, the project leadership is highly complex. The role of project lead can be shared, differentiated on work package levels, and interlinked with department or team heads on each institutional level. While these diverse settings do not allow for a project-wide adaptation of a participatory leadership concept, TCI is still applicable to smaller teams, in a project sub-circle or at a single institution. It would have less effect on the project overall, but still be helpful for those involved. TCI’s open design means that it can also be combined with, and complement, other methods, as in the case of “Peer Group Intervision.”

Peer Group Intervision


The German term “kollegiale Fallberatung,” or “Peer Group Intervision” in English, refers to a certain type of peer-to-peer counselling. Although it is not strictly defined, there are similar approaches under various other names such as “intervision,” “collegial supervision,” and “collegial consultation.” In a nutshell, colleagues work together to find solutions to a specific problem by taking a resource- and solution-oriented perspective (Herwig-Lempp). The roles of the participants can change: one member might raise a problem, and another might be involved in finding a solution or serve as facilitator. At first, this sounds like it should be a matter of course in a DH research team. Several things are, however, required at the outset: a clear structure and setting, open exchange, facilitation techniques, and an organization that supports this kind of solution finding. Resources, after all, are necessary to learn these techniques. Once the team is ready, recurring appointments must be scheduled for regular consultations.

Experienced groups meet according to a fixed pattern, which is divided into several phases. In an initial role-assignment phase, the following responsibilities are covered: one group member presents a problem and asks for guidance. A facilitator moderates the process, while the remaining team members take the role of peer counsellors. When the problem or “case” is briefly presented, a key question is formulated together with the consulting team. The entire group then agrees on one or more methods for answering this question. (A small selection of possible methods is found in the last section of this chapter.) With the chosen method, the consultants comment on and formulate possible solutions, open up new perspectives, and offer concise suggestions. The goal here is to provide a broad range of suitable options for the person presenting the problem. In the last phase, the latter briefly reflects on which suggestions and proposed solutions are most helpful (Tietze, “Methoden” 314).

According to Kim-Oliver Tietze, the success of the approach lies in the error-tolerant framework. The fast and creative techniques lead to even more possibilities for consideration (“Team Consultation” 132–134). Team members need to recognize that the goal is not to find the truth but to search for hypotheses. Peer Group Intervision (PGI) thus provides a strong framework for guiding the communication to the intended goal and offers a quick, superficial way to deal with topics at a first glance. This makes it possible to shift the focus from the problem to the possible solution.

The first applications of this technique are in areas where specialized, academically trained individuals worked in environments unfamiliar to their supervisors. For example, psychotherapists active in the field of social welfare saw Peer Group Intervision as part of a professionalization process in the 1960s. On the one hand, this refers to the personal development of one’s own career and, on the other, to the professionalization of a field of work (Tietze, “Methoden” 309). This approach has also been applied to other professional fields (e.g., the medical field) and as part of an organization's internal personnel and management training to help ensure the quality of professional activities (Tietze, Wirkprozesse 36).

In the DH field, one application would be the group of researchers in German-speaking countries who have organized in social media under “#DHfromScratch” since 2019 (Cremer et al.; Roeder et al.). The researchers of this group are “lone wolves” (Pierazzo) who have no DH colleagues in their work environments. Some may work in small research teams where each team member has a very specialized task or perhaps they are part of larger research projects where the DH component is limited. Others may work in institutions that are developing digital infrastructure for DH (e.g., academic libraries). In any case, they are united by a need for structured exchange with peers from other institutions to reflect on their work—which includes project management—and a desire to advance the process of professionalization on an individual and collective level (Steyer et al.).

The authors have tested the PGI approach in the context of a workshop and can report both initial successes and limitations. PGI is actually designed for consulting within an organization, whereas participants from the “#DHfromScratch” group work in different organizations (Tietze, Wirkprozesse 25). Therefore, one adaptation of the approach would be to define the concept of organization more broadly. As a consequence, it would not be of concern to individual organizations, but rather to a common research area with scholars who face its related challenges. Here, everyone belongs to the group of “lone wolves.” The PGI approach promises to overcome the imminent danger of problem orientation to such a group by striving for a solution orientation instead (Tietze, “Team Consultation” 64).

Field Report and Limitations

The authors have built a peer-to-peer network over the past few years and tested PGI in a workshop setting. The short-term goal was to find solutions to current problems. The long-term goal was to build up or expand a solution-finding competence. The starting situation was favorable, as the participants already knew each other (partly through digital humanities conferences) and had developed a sufficient level of trust. Although collegial exchange had been cultivated for some time, it became clear that the meetings needed a firmer structure to avert the risk of problem orientation. During the workshop, some methods were tried out, but limitations emerged. For example, some of the techniques only lead to the desired success through regular use or require build-up steps that take several weeks. In dealing with collaboration management in DH projects, the participants obtained new perspectives on their own role, their responsibility, and the limits of their power in those situations.

PGI can also impact an individual’s career. Gradually, it becomes clearer in the solution finding process if the needs of the researcher can or cannot be met in the existing framework. During the consulting phase, it turned out that some existing parameters would be difficult to change. The proposed solutions also included radical steps such as reconsidering whether to continue on a DH-focused career path. Framed more positively, the creative conversation techniques and the strong structure gave rise to a wide range of solutions, which also included less radical steps. Despite the initial optimism in the workshop, however, the participants were not able to develop a routine of regularly consulting with the larger group due to the lack of institutional support. Nevertheless, the methods learned were applied in smaller subgroups or were integrated—in a modified form—into self-counselling processes.

Outlook: Toolbox

Several methods from PGI manuals were tested during the workshop. These interview techniques are adopted and adapted from other disciplines such as systemic therapy, social work, and project management. The following three methods, while only a selection, could be helpful as a kind of toolbox for DH researchers in conducting regular counseling sessions.

Headstand Method

The headstand method is useful for expanding the spectrum of ideas when it is difficult to find solutions (Baumann and Gordalla 158; Tietze, “Team Consultation” 48). In effect, the problem is turned into the opposite. Thus, instead of dealing with the question of why team members show up to meetings unprepared and find it difficult to adhere to agreements, one contemplates a question that goes in the opposite direction: How could I make this situation worse? The solutions found for “making it worse” can then be considered as a starting point for the next question: What happens if I turn these solutions around? Could this help me find a solution for the problem from the beginning (e.g., with unprepared team members)? This example would appear as follows:

Table 1: Headstand Method

How could I make this situation worse?

How could I improve this situation?

Cut off contact between meetings and forbid any communication between team members

Ask more often if there are problems and actively offer help; encourage communication outside meetings

Extend the time between meetings

Shorten the time between meetings

Make the tasks larger and more complex

Make the tasks smaller

Move the meetings to an inconvenient time (e.g., Fridays, 6 p.m.)

Decide together what meeting time is best

Build pressure due to possibility of great failure

Increase motivation through the prospect of (small) successes

Miracle Question

The miracle question method comes from solution-focused therapy. It begins with the person who brought the problem, who is then to imagine that the problem has suddenly been solved. They are then invited to explain how they can tell that the problem has been solved. The person is next asked how far they are from this ideal state. Here it is helpful to rate this on a scale (10 = miracle, 1 = worst case). The subsequent questions deal with self-efficacy and examine positive factors in the environment and how to strengthen them. Incremental steps are then considered, e.g., by asking what would have to happen to move up one point on the scale towards 10 (miracle). The success of the method lies in the conversational approach which first moves toward an extremely positive (but not necessarily realistic) ideal state and then establishes a strong connection to one’s own actions. The step-by-step approach toward achieving a “miracle” can be effective when the path to the ideal state seems too remote (Eberling).

Clarifying the Mandate

When you find yourself in a “#DHfromScratch” position, you can have multiple tasks and responsibilities on a project, and it can seem impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. To develop your courses of action, it is helpful to take a few steps back and reaffirm the original mandate. For this purpose, all stakeholders should be named and pinned on a board. In the second step, the expectations of these stakeholders should be formulated. As expectations are usually not expressed explicitly, the consulting team members work together to articulate them. The person who has introduced the problem is given an overview of the expectations so they can then narrow down more precisely which of these tasks they will tackle and which they will perhaps ignore (Tietze, “Team Consultation” 96–102). In a “#DHfromScratch” workshop, for example, it became apparent that many group members felt that their institutions have high expectations for individual DH projects. A single DH project is expected to improve the image of the institution and represent modernization through its innovative research. This expectation obviously increases the pressure on the “#DHfromScratch” group member to succeed, even if the official mandate “only” concerns the management of a DH project. The researcher’s awareness of these expectations can be paralyzing. On the other hand, by communicating more transparently about such expectations with the institution, it is easier to formulate a realistic target agreement and explicitly exclude some expectations.

Reflections on Adaptations

From working within many interdisciplinary projects, I have learnt that the key to choosing and maintaining a good working team can often be to look out for potential scholars who display an understanding of “alterity” (even if they have never heard of the sociological theory): willing to work with others and possessing an ability to understand the needs and viewpoints of their teammates. As well as an interest in working in digital humanities and across disciplinary divides, the individual has to have the personality to match this in practice. It stands to reason that managers of interdisciplinary digital humanities projects should also therefore possess communication skills that allow for the successful management of complex teams—and to behave as mediator if things go wrong. (Terras 223)

One of the essential tasks for project managers in the digital humanities research is mediating between different personalities across disciplines, institutions, and hierarchies. This mediation, moreover, is carried out within complex settings affected by requirements from project plans, funding agencies, and the available infrastructure and technologies. Since the field of DH requires a specific type of project management, the DH community is required to develop their own specifications. For successful team management, communication requires a practical and methodical approach that is theoretically grounded and has been critically examined by the DH community. The concepts introduced in this article are only a selection of the possible theoretical and practical ideas that may contribute to the advancement of collaboration management in the DH. As transferring concepts from other fields or contexts brings challenges, limitations, and constraints, direct implementation or specific recommendations are often not useful. Therefore, this article does not seek to provide step-by-step instructions or even a set of best practices, but rather to serve as a thought-provoking resource on how a project manager can improve collaboration in their next DH project. At the same time, the digital humanities needs to be well prepared for the task of transferring theories and methods from other domains, which marks one of the genuine activities of their field. Many aspects derived from the concepts of Systemic Thinking, Theme-Centred Interaction, and Peer Group Intervision match experiences, suggestions, and best practices already expressed in the discussion on project management in the digital humanities. However, examining these concepts provides a deeper theoretical and methodological context than just the empirical and anecdotal results from the field. A critical examination on possible adaptations and transformations promotes the ongoing reflection on what is meant in DH by collaboration, collegiality, and openness.

The TCI four-factor model suggests the centrality of the framework (the “Globe”), which further applies to the successful implementation of a group-work method. The degree to which a project manager can use any of the presented concepts or ideas is not determined by the manager alone. Indeed, the conditions for successful implementation are manifold. They include, for example, institutional parameters (which tend to resist change) and the willingness of team members to invest their time and energy. Without an institutional understanding of the need to build and develop solution-oriented and communication-intensive project management approaches, individual managers, coordinators, or leaders will ultimately accomplish very little. There are two obvious ways to go about project management in this context: one can either trace back the concepts of successful projects (see: “Don’t Fix What’s Broken, Find out What Works—and Do More of It”), or one can consider the risk analyses in project planning that point out possible pitfalls due to a lack of concepts for interdisciplinary communication.

The selection of the concepts of Systemic Thinking, Theme-Centred Interaction, and Peer Group Intervision is intended to reflect different levels of concepts—from a general way of thinking through a specific method or a toolbox for a specific approach. Common patterns can be identified from the individual discussions of the three concepts. Moreover, the humanistic stance is expressed throughout all the approaches, emphasizing both the autonomy as well as the critical engagement of the group members. Each concept entails formal rules that prevent people in positions of power (e.g., therapist, leader, consultant) from imposing their own interpretations of reality. Different strategies for using or activating resources of the team or individuals are suggested as part of a solution-focused approach recurring in all concepts. These approaches also indicate starting points for transforming the concepts in other contexts. Communication is universally seen as the crucial and defining factor for team and group interactions, which explains why deliberate and explicit communication is a common theme. Managing collaboration implies managing and designing communication. We therefore agree with Melissa Terras’ statement that managers of interdisciplinary digital humanities projects should always act as mediators—even when things are going well.


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