By Gabriele Bammer
What are the ingredients of successful research collaboration? How can we make collaboration work when we are all getting busier?
One of the best guides to success in collaborative team work was produced by Michelle Bennett, Howard Gadlin and Samantha Levine-Findlay in 2010. Built on the experience of researchers at the US National Institutes of Health, they explored: preparing for collaboration, selecting team members, fostering trust, sharing credit, handling conflict and more.
An additional way of thinking about collaboration that I have found useful (Bammer 2008) is to consider it as a process of harnessing and managing differences.
Collaboration = harnessing and managing differences
The rationale for collaborating is to bring together people with different knowledge, skills and attributes so that an issue can be understood more comprehensively. Harnessing these different insights may also set the stage for more effective action on the problem.
But collaborators do not just come with differences that are desirable and to be harnessed. They also come with differences that get in the way of collaborating. Personality differences immediately come to mind. Further, different world views, ways of addressing problems, work habits, disciplinary cultures and more may also hinder working together. For a collaboration to be successful, these differences need to be managed.
It is worth noting that there is no master list of desirable and undesirable differences. The differences to be harnessed and those to be managed vary from project to project. For example, in one project different ways of understanding the world may be necessary to develop a rich framing of the problem. In another project those same differences may be irrelevant and get in the way of developing a shared approach.
There are some general cautions, such as the one in Doug Easterling’s blog post to “Avoid people … who are only interested in running things, hearing themselves talk or getting personal credit.” But sometimes a project needs someone who can push through, or that person has other expertise that cannot be ignored, or there may be other compelling reasons why they must be included in a project.
Much more work is required on strategies to manage undesirable differences, before they get to the stage of requiring coflict resolution. There are, however, some straightforward steps that may be useful. One involves simply identifying the differences. Using personality tests to highlight differences among team members is a cornerstone of many team building activities. Suddenly a new benign explanation becomes available for someone who – seen through the lens of a personalty type that is not theirs – was thought to be obstructionist or deliberately aggravating. Irritations then often melt away.
Busyness as a barrier to collaboration
A relatively recent barrier to collaboration is busyness. Collaboration needs time: time to get to know each other, to fully appreciate the strengths that each person brings to the table, to communicate, and to effectively manage tensions that will inevitably arise.
Most importantly, harnessing differences takes time. This is less of an issue when a project can be legitimately ‘carved up’ between the investigators. But it is significant when the team needs to work together to define the problem, to engage with stakeholders, to deal with value conflicts, and to synthesize different disciplinary research findings and stakeholder insights. The more diverse the disciplinary and stakeholder perspectives, the more time is needed for synthesis.
Busyness is therefore getting in the way of effective integration which is fundamental to research that is inter- or transdisciplinary, as well as to other approaches that deal with complex real world problems, such as systems thinking, action research and integrated assessment.
Team members’ different responses to busyness are also increasingly becoming differences to be managed. There are commonly variations across a team in members’:
- commitment to the project and the priority they assign to the work
- commitment to good team communication and process, with some wanting to take the necessary time and others wanting to bulldoze through
- willingness to do the necessary, but unrewarded, work that teams require, such as dealing with tensions, organizing social events, checking-in with people, and ensuring that good communication is occurring
- preparedness to cut corners in good research processes, whether these are engaging with and reporting back to stakeholders, data cleaning and analysis, good laboratory procedures, and clear and accurate writing-up of research papers.
Indeed busyness can be corrosive and undermine trust and team work in other ways too. Some team members may simply not deliver, jeopardizing the efforts made by others and wasting their time. Finding ways to effectively deal with busyness is therefore a major challenge for collaboration.
What do you think? Do you find the “harnessing and managing differences” perspective on collaboration useful? Are you aware of strategies for managing differences, other than simply identifying them? Have you found effective ways to manage busyness?
Bammer, G. (2008). Enhancing research collaboration: Three key management challenges. Research Policy, 37: 875-887.
Bennett, L. M., Gadlin, H. and Levine-Finley, S. (2010). Collaboration & Team Science: A Field Guide. National Institutes of Health Publication No. 10-7660, National Institutes of Health: Bethesda, United States of America.
January 2022: this reference has been replaced by a second edition available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-nci/organization/crs/research-initiatives/team-science-field-guide/collaboration-team-science-guide.pdf (PDF 852KB).
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the US National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.