For a modern researcher, collaboration is of vital importance. You cannot even begin to think of having a high impact publication without having to collaborate with someone. Often it is many people. Collaboration is difficult. Once you go outside the 4 walls of your institution or company the challenge of getting things done is magnified many fold. Yet, there are numerous benefits of collaboration you can’t go without. It’s even worse when it’s your job to manage the most challenging type of collaboration – a multi-stakeholder consortium with 39 partner organisations. [the audience gasps]
That is where I found myself a little over 7 years ago when we started the U-BIOPRED project. As a project, we struggled with all the types of challenges you could imagine for such a project. It certainly at times felt like a type of insanity. However, in the end, it was a highly successful project that delivered beyond expectations. It was not because we knew what we were doing when we started. It was because many of the contributors were dedicated to making it work as a highly integrated collaboration. Most importantly we tried different approaches for getting things done and learned a lot on the way.
Getting things done faster in collaborations
Here is a list of 51 tactics for getting things done in and delivering more in collaborations that are based on the experience in U-BIOPRED and similar experiences in several other multi-stakeholder collaborations:
- Understand the benefit of the collaboration for yourself: It is very easy to forget why you entered into a collaboration in the first place. It stands to reason that if you are aware of why you are in a collaboration you can more easily say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to the right things and conserve your resources for what matters the most. It is helpful to remind yourself of the benefits of collaboration.
- Continually communicate: Everyone knows that communication is important. The distinguishing factor here is the word ‘continually’. People need to get to know one another, and need to hear about an idea or problem and go away to think about it. If they go away and the time is too long before it comes up again they forget about it. You may miss out on a really creative solution that someone had a week after your last meeting or conference call but then forgets about it when you meet again in 2 1/2 months
- Have more conflicts: This may sound counterintuitive, but conflict is a way to move forward. Conflict is a means to gain a true understanding of the perspectives of those who you are collaborating with. You just need to assure that the conflict happens in the right way.
- Work in an iterative manner: At first glance this seems obvious. However, it is very easy to hold on to something you are producing until it is ‘perfect’. This is especially true when you are working in a collaboration. Holding on to a document, a plan, or a first version of a software slows things down. It also limits the input your collaborators can bring to what you are working on. Get the first draft or ‘straw man’ out there early.
- Actively listen to meetings and conference calls: Unless you have to present the tendency in a meeting or conference call is to allow yourself to be distracted. You are missing a trick if you do so. Even if a topic seems distant for you, it’s a great opportunity to learn. By actively listening you can also put forth your ideas and shape the work being done.
- Include a neutral moderator: This tactic complements tactic #3. When you are in a collaboration you have your interests and your collaborators have their interests. A neutral moderator can help accelerate conflict resolution. This person can be focused on what is best for making the collaboration happen.
- Improve logistic efficiency: Logistical problems become magnified when you start working with external collaborators. They can be a real hindrance. Technology exists today that will help to make the logistics more efficient. Investing time and effort into professional logistics means you have more time to do the work you are good at.
- Write better emails: We all love and hate email. No matter what you think it is a communication medium that is not going away. Better emails make for better communication which results in better collaboration.
- Know why others are in the collaboration: This tactic is the mirror image of tact#1. Developing empathy for the perspectives and interests of your collaboration partners will help you identify synergies.
- Cultivate a shared vision: Collaborations are about pull management, not push management. You can pull people into your collaboration by having a strong shared vision of what you are going to produce.
- Define clear next actions: It is amazing how often in a discussion you get to a point of agreement and then the topic switches without deciding upon what to do next. It is perhaps the hardest part of such discussions, but without deciding upon next actions you will often find yourself discussing the same topic again the next time you meet.
- Structure around a set of tasks: Similar to the problem highlighted in tactic #11, having a pre-defined set of tasks helps prevent the situation where you sit around and wonder what you should do next. Working on a set of well written tasks does not limit what you can do. Well written tasks allow for enough flexibility that they don’ become irrelevant.
- Define milestones: Milestones are a nice way to manage a collaboration because they allow for flexibility, but yet still create pressure to get things done.
- Discuss issues blocking progress: No matter how well you have planned your project or how many risks you have mitigated there are always issues the limit progress. Ignore them and your project will go nowhere.
- Leverage the expertise of multiple experts: One of the greatest strengths of any collaboration is the breadth of expertise. Tapping into that expertise to solve problems or issues is extraordinarily powerful.
- Involve people who can articulate the ‘why’: It is not always easy to explain clearly the value of a piece of work. You may understand it, but conveying that understanding to others can be difficult. Having someone who can describe the project and its outcomes in terms of a value proposition can go a long way towards motivating all those involved.
- Treat it as its own type of work: Often people will apply their own internal administrative model or project management model. Collaborative teams are not the same as your internal teams. By nature they are a flat structure, so demanding something get done can have the opposite effect from what is intended.
- Encourage junior people to contribute: Those who are in the early phases of their own career development have to most to gain from a collaboration. For them having the opportunity to contribute meaningfully can significantly build their career. Collaborations are also great educational opportunities.
- Enable career building: You can multiply the input of junior contributors if you build some career building aspects into your collaboration. For example allowing for exchange programs, or cross hiring can make working in your collaboration more attractive. Collaboration is one of the best ways to boost your transferable skills and meet your needs as a researcher.
- Follow up consistently: Often things don’t get done because people forget they are meant to do them. In this age of information overload you have to hyper-focus to get anything done, which means you focus on the most pressing task. The result is that tasks related to a collaboration are blocked out of your consciousness.
- Be transparent: Nothing blocks progress in a collaboration more than the perception that others have a hidden agenda. It is natural to resist when you think someone is being less than transparent.
- Use supple tactical governance: A process needs to be followed for decision-making, but it also needs to be flexible. It may be that some of your collaboration partners did not realize fully the implications of what you all decided in the last meeting. You may have adapt or modify your plans. However, there needs to be a direction, so the further out from a decision the more reluctant you should be to change it.
- Share responsibility: Making individuals responsible is a good way to motivate them to be productive. A collaboration means that you will have to give others responsibilities you are used to having. The upside is that they will be doing the work associated with that responsibility.
- Look for synergies not compromise: The anathema of collaboration is compromise. Everyone assumes that collaboration is equivalent to compromise. That’s the easy way out. It is hard work to look for the something better than compromise – synergy. That hard work is worthwhile. Synergy fuel.
- Plan for adequate resources: Not having enough resources is demotivating. The difficult question always is what is adequate? The more ambitious the project the more likely you are to underestimate what is needed. One way to minimize the impact is to plan for enough resources in as short a time cycle as possible. If it is an important project the argument should be made to go outside usual budgeting rules. Set aside funding, but include contingency milestones that reduce the budget if certain returns are not delivered.
- Build for sharing: The technology exists, but setting up systems and processes that enable sharing require proactive effort. For example implementing standards requires up front effort, but it makes whatever you produce understandable to others and makes it more likely to be re-used.
- Foster a community: When you know who you are collaborating with you feel more comfortable challenging them and at the same time you find it easier to agree with them.
- Communicate successes: Nothing brings people to a project like success. When you have success communicate it internally as well as externally. It is important to make sure the success is framed in the context of the value of what you have produced. Doing so typically takes some thinking. Communicating your successes is important for keeping your partners engaged in a collaboration.
- Understand the broader context: Lateral thinking is an important ingredient for creativity. The more you understand the broader context of the work your are doing in a collaboration the more laterally you can think.
- Review the initial plan periodically: Most Gantt charts are never looked at again after a project starts. Yet they can be an excellent tool for highlighting risks and telling you what you should be doing at any point and time. Just do not get hung up on the precise timing. If you are able to predict exactly what is going to happen during the planning phases you are either a time traveller, or your project is not ambitious.
- Beat bureaucracy with proactive efficiency: Bureaucracy is the bane of innovation. You can sit and complain about when it creates more work and/or more cost, but complaining is just wasted energy. Put your energy in proactive measures that organise your project and defeat bureaucracy before it has a chance to slow you down.
- Ask for help: One of the truisms in working in a collaborative project is the more you contribute the more you will do. It is easy to horde tasks and activities, but if you do it is a recipe for burnout. People are surprisingly responsive when you ask for help.
- Entertain other perspectives: It is hard to think that others have a perspective that is different from yours, but they do. Before you react, take the time to understand the other perspectives that are contributing to a discussion.
- Be inclusive: The default for a collaboration should be to tell everyone everything. You will be faulted much less for being transparent, than when you hide things from others.
- Protect IP: The most acrimonious disputes in collaborations are about intellectual property. Thinking about this up front, and agreeing who owns what can save time and effort later. It can also save the collaboration.
- Plan for sustainability: Most collaborative projects are ambitious. Plus people like to see that their efforts will have a lasting effect. If what you are producing will be obsolete after a couple of years, you will have a hard time getting people to contribute.
- Embrace technology: Sure you did not need technology before, but it you do now. The problem is that technology drives up expectations about what can be achieved. If you do not embrace technology you and your collaborative project will underperform.
- Adapt your processes as the collaboration evolves: You cannot predict what will work and what won’t. Also, collaborations go through phases that often necessitate and change in operating model.
- Identify risks and make plans to mitigate them: It is always easier and more efficient if you immediately know what you to do when confronted with a new problem.
- Realize that most overestimate what they can do in 1 year and underestimate what they can do in 1O: Collaborations move slower than your internal projects. Yet when they are successful they will have much bigger impact than your internal projects. Be patient and persistent.
- Don’t brainstorm: Classic brainstorming has been shown to lead to less creativity than a structured discussion. Have discussions and ask your partners to give their ideas to improve an initial plan or outline. Do not spend most or all of a meeting listing out ideas. Its putting those ideas into action that matters.
- Use small groups to define initial plans but then circulate widely: In a collaboration it is important that your partners are with you and feel part of the plan. However, if you asked everyone for ideas you might end up in an endless discussion.
- Document discussions: If you look up ‘minute taking’, the classic wisdom is that you should only record actions and decisions. The problem is that people tend to float in and out of a collaboration, and it is often not their major concern. So, they forget what you talked about, or weren’t even present at the last meeting. Short informative documentation of the discussion at a meeting or conference call is a means of communicating what is happening and helps avoid the need to rehash a discussion you had at the last meeting.
- Understand the 80/20 principle: In a collaboration 20% of the partners will do 80% of the work. This is not ideal distribution of labor. Take advantage of every opportunity you can to engage the other 80%, but don’t count on them to be productive.
- Follow a set of rules: Geese are able to fly in a V formation because each goose follows rules based upon what it sees before it.
- Understand the principles of project management: Project management is a structured way of thinking about a piece of work. It does not mean you have to be rigid in your work. Everyone should know something about project management. You at least should understand what a deliverable is.
- Take the time to translate between disciplines: Convergence of expertise can produce some very interesting ideas. However, it takes effort because different disciplines speak a different language.
- Produce pre-minutes for your meetings: It is counterintuitive, but you can gain a lot of efficiency by writing the minutes of a meeting before the meeting happens. It really goes well when everyone at a meeting or on a call have pre-minuted items they are responsible for. If anything it helps them form their thoughts before coming to the meeting.
- Assure that everyone knows the purpose and objectives of each meeting: You are more likely to get the right people at your meeting if you take a few minutes and write out a purpose and a set of objectives.
- Build in resource redundancy: When you are planning a project take every opportunity to make sure you have more than one person or group that can do each task. People tend to come and go in collaborations and if you do not have skill redundancy you end up waiting for a new person to be recruited.
- Plan to change the plan: It would be fair to say that projects where the plan has not been changed are either not ambitious enough, or the reports are being tailored to make it look like everything’s going according to plan.
Committing to the discipline of collaboration
Working in a collaboration is much different than working on your own, or with your own internal team. Getting things done in a collaboration is its own discipline that when mastered can pay off big rewards. Truly mastering the discipline of collaboration takes time and effort. These tactics are meant to make your mastering the discipline of collaboration easier for you. You’ll see an immediate impact, however implementing some of these tactics is just the first step.
This post first appeared on Scott’s blog in November 2016.