Strategies to deal with forced hostile collaborations

By Kristine Lund

author-kristine-lund
Kristine Lund (biography)

What can you do when a national funding umbrella organization asks you to add a new partner to a collaborative project, especially when that partner has a poor reputation for collaborating?

Here I share lessons based on my experience of leading a multi-million Euro grant, where two interdisciplinary language sciences laboratories, which had worked together successfully for 8 years, were preparing a bid for a 5-year continuation in funding. In the process of preparing that bid, our national umbrella organization suggested that a third language sciences laboratory that had strong links to neurosciences join the consortium.

Strategy 1: Try to make it work

Based on previous experience, neither of the two founding member labs wanted to accept the new collaborative partner. Although this third lab was very competent scientifically, some key members had proven during former collaborative projects to be very difficult partners from a social-relational point of view.

As project leader, my first reaction was to follow the wishes of the national umbrella organization and work to integrate this incoming lab while attempting to convince members of the two founding labs that gaining additional high-level competence was worth putting effort into solving relational difficulties. After all, refusing the national umbrella organization point-blank could have consequences for future hiring and funding possibilities.

But as I worked with the director of this incoming lab over a period of months, I began to change my mind, having witnessed a set of actions that illustrated specific roadblocks to building trust, necessary for good collaboration. The director:

  • disrespected procedures established between us;
  • misrepresented what happened in meetings;
  • unilaterally corresponded with our national umbrella organization regarding the project;
  • made unjustified demands on governance;
  • criticized in bad faith the indicators of success of our project;
  • attempted unjustifiably and without authority to rank disciplines within the project in terms of importance.

Strategy 2: Stop the forced collaboration and find an acceptable alternative scenario

My evolving understanding of how this director worked changed my view of the situation, so I decided to radically change my strategy and find a way to stop the integration of this third lab while proposing an alternative scenario that was acceptable for the national umbrella organization.

A key aspect of this strategy was taking the perspective of the national umbrella organization. For a start, their suggestion was reasonable from the national perspective in that funding should catalyze collaboration on shared themes and create new potential in an interdisciplinary space where participants could capitalize on being co-located in the same city. In addition, ours was the sole grant out of eleven originally-funded initiatives that had only two participating research labs. The other ten had many more laboratories, so one could argue that the resources be shared also from this perspective. That said, the original proposal was scientifically justified when the project was first submitted as only the two original labs had obtained the quality status (A+ rating) in language sciences, a necessary criterion to submit a project.

I did my own analysis of language sciences at the national level in order to find a way to position our project as a crucial scientific contributor to an area that was not yet developed. This was important strategically, as the goal of the national umbrella organization is to have separate, visible, identities of excellence in the country. I therefore proposed to bring a different laboratory into the consortium and develop our project at the crossroads of language science and computer science, a scientific niche that was not currently highly visible in the country.

I was able to do this because I personally had a long history of collaboration with this computer science lab, and so did some of my colleagues, so it was not difficult to write the newly proposed scientific orientation in a credible fashion. This choice had the additional, crucial benefit of moving our refunding proposal away from the nexus of neuroscience and linguistics (the main strength of the hostile laboratory), which was already well-covered by another consortium in another part of the country.

In summary the lessons learned are:

  • Take the perspective of your national umbrella organization in order to understand funding constraints and goals on a level higher than your own;
  • Perform an analysis of the relevant research space in order to determine niche areas for innovative research that are not yet occupied;
  • Propose a desirable collaborative partner to add to the consortium, one that will help your project occupy one of these niche areas;
  • Keep lines of communication open with local umbrella organizations and be aware of their concerns;
  • Make sure this new partner enables you to gain the necessary support (in our case from local and regional leaders, as this helped in gaining support nationally).

How it all played out

The hostile lab broke up due to internal tensions.

We obtained continued funding and the two founding language science labs, along with the new computer science lab, have already developed four innovative projects that are now being evaluated by an international scientific advisory board. We are working toward the goal of gaining international visibility for innovative research at the crossroads of these disciplines in our region, thus aligning to the national umbrella organization’s strategy.

If you have experienced an attempted forced collaboration, did you use different strategies to foil it? Which ones? How successful were you? What do you think you could have done differently?

Biography: Kristine Lund PhD works for the French CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) as a Senior Research Engineer in the Interactions, Corpus, Apprentissages, Représentations (Interactions, Corpora, Learning, Representations) language sciences laboratory at the University of Lyon in France. Her work focuses on connecting systems of different orders (linguistic, cognitive, interactional, social) in order to better understand collaborative knowledge construction. She is Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of http://www.Cognik.net.

6 thoughts on “Strategies to deal with forced hostile collaborations”

  1. Thanks Kristine for an honest treatment of a topic that arises much more frequently than is acknowledged. I wrote an article about funder-driven collaborative efforts (https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/tfr/vol5/iss2/7/) which included the following quote from a nonprofit leader:

    “When they come in and force them and it’s not an organic situation, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any that have been successful. … That just is so bogus to me. … They’ve got the housing people, the medical people. They’ve got everybody from every category and they just don’t know where to go. It takes them years to figure out what do they even want to talk about. And then when they start, they infringe on things that other people are trying to do. … If all of a sudden the pot dries up or really shrinks down, they aren’t there. They’re no longer talking to each other.”

    As you allude in your blog, naturally forming networks are much stronger and more productive. Funders can play a legitimate role in pushing networks to expand their membership and to consider moving to greater impact, but they need to check themselves against pushing people and organizations into arrangements that don’t work and into lines of work that fall outside their mission and goals.

    In addition to the remedies you proposed in your blog, I would also encourage anyone who finds themselves in the situation you describe to find ways to have an honest conversation with their funder. Having worked inside a foundation for 7 years and as an external evaluator to foundations for 20 more, I can say that funders have only a partial picture of what they are causing to happen through their actions and decisions — sometimes causing more harm than good. Conscientious funders will be appreciative of your feedback. The others should be avoided.

    Reply
    • Dear Doug, I’ve downloaded your document and it will be a great resource that I will pass along to others, thanks so much! I think the way our funder intervened was influenced by the responsibilities they have at the national level, so it might be a little bit different than the funder/foundations you talk about. My funder is a national organization and must manage of all the research in the country, in partnership with all of the universities and other higher education institutions. From their far-away and top-down global perspective (they are located in the capital), they see laboratories as entities that have particular characteristics. And if one lab that specializes in a certain theme is isolated, but could be grouped with other labs, then they will want to suggest this. And it makes sense from a higher up management perspective. But local specificities matter, as you have also pointed out. I will share my blog piece with both local and national funders, and I’m glad that it is resonating with some other people as this makes the argument stronger. But regardless, I won’t be able to “avoid them” 😉 In France, we have local and national hierarchical umbrella organizations that provide funding, employment, office-space, infrastructure, etc. every year for renewable 5-year contracts.

      Reply
  2. This was a most interesting read – I think that many of us can think of projects with similar issues. We report some cautious/initial success with a project that would fall into this category. Here are some of the points we note that may have assisted (or at least felt noteworthy to us!):
    1. We have a ‘neutral’ but assertive project manager (PM) who keeps reminding us this is all about the expectations of the funding body.
    2. The project leader (PL) and the PM have tag teamed who would send what email and have carefully considered how the messages are likely to be received/interpreted.
    3. The PM and PL have also proved to be good counter-balances for each other. Initially the PM thought they should walk away but the PL wanted to make it work. Time passed and by the day that the difficult collaborator completely deleted and rewrote the entire proposal the PM was able to talk the PL ‘off the ledge’.
    4. We had broad shoulders, thick skins.
    5. We also had a strong recognition that we had something substantial to contribute that would be impactful for our stakeholders at a time when our type of research was much needed.
    6. Finally, this was our space – and we had way too much determination for our own good.

    Reply
    • Thank-you for your interest and for these comments which are indeed all so relevant to the success of the project in such circumstances. They are very helpful for me to think about, even if we’ve moved past the moment of difficulty in our own project. They will definitely be helpful for others as well! I like the tag-team effort between the PL and the PM. They can support each other, and they can also play different roles (maybe even good cop, bad cop), if certain things need to be said. And #4, #5, and #6 are also crucial because without them (in our case), we could have thrown in the towel.

      Reply
  3. Interesting blog thanks Kristine. There can be similar issues in co-design processes where a partner can forget or not realise that there must be both give and take. I don’t have any solutions here but would be keen to see any comment from someone with more experience in this area.

    Reply
    • Thanks Val for your comment! I’m wondering now how co-design processes can have specificities that may lend themselves to other types of solutions. This got me thinking to how I’ve taught argumentation and problem solving to infographics students who are either programmers or graphic design artists and must work together on projects. So they come to the table with different expertise that is sometimes in tension. For example, in terms of interface design, programmers want an elegant and lean solution that runs quickly, but it may not be beautiful. Graphic design artists want a solution that is eye-catching and aesthetic, but it may run more slowly as a result. So in our project development, I had them use argumentation diagrams to propose solutions that were then critiqued. They had to connect arguments to each solution that were either in favor or against and back those arguments up with evidence. There was also the possibility for counter-arguments. Even if this process may be too heavy to carry out during a real project with a client, it did get the students to understand the points of view and the constraints of other types of expertise. And in that sense, it was good training for their future careers. They should realize after such an exercise that others also have important input to give and they should understand the reasons and backing for that input. It was a kind of specialized “space of debate” that they were exploring, both broadening and deepening their knowledge:

      Baker, M.J., Andriessen, J., Lund, K., van Amelsvoort, M., & Quignard, M. (2007). Rainbow: a
      framework for analysing computer-mediated pedagogical debates. International Journal of
      Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2 (2-3) 315-357.

      Reply

Leave a Reply to Doug Easterling Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: