Collaboration agreement template

By L. Michelle Bennett, Edgar Cardenas and Michael O’Rourke

1. L. Michelle Bennett (biography)
2. Edgar Cardenas (biography)
2. Michael O’Rourke (biography)

As scientific research continues to move towards collaborative knowledge production, scientists must become more adept at working in teams. How can teams improve their chances of collaboration success? What is a good way to facilitate dialogue about shared values, norms and processes of collaboration? Are there ways of anticipating, identifying, and addressing obstacles as they arise?

We have designed a collaboration agreement template to assist teams in:

– Making explicit and therefore transparent important aspects of their approach to collaboration
– Ensuring they have a shared vision for their work together
– Recognizing that their working relationships are dynamic, individually and as a team, and will require flexibility and a willingness to adapt over time
– Establishing expectations for working together, including what they do and say
– Preparing for disagreements and even conflicts, especially in the early stages and along the way when there are changes in team composition.

We designed the collaboration agreement around three central dimensions of collaborative research: team management, team dynamics, and team communication.

  1. The team management section focuses on developing a shared view of success, holding each other accountable, and deciding how decisions will be made.
  2. The team dynamics section concerns the establishment of psychological safety in the group and includes questions about managing differences, creating a safe space to work collaboratively, and responding to conflict.
  3. The third section, team communication, is devoted to norms for communication, both when in dialogue as well as the actual mechanisms for communicating, and strategies for incorporating the different perspectives each member brings to the effort.
  4. Finally, an appendix includes additional questions that teams can consider. It also invites teams to develop and use their own questions, given that it is not unusual for teams to come across topics that derive value from a conversation and some memorializing.

The following are examples of questions from the template that teams are invited to address:

Team Management

  • What does success look like for this project (eg., achieve funding, advance our careers, develop a marketable deliverable, function well as a team, sustain our motivation)?
  • How will important project decisions be made for this team (eg., about budgets, funding, reports, team function, user interviews, personnel decisions, data management)?

Team Dynamics

  • How will we ensure it is safe for everyone to take a risk in our group (eg., present ideas about the science or the team dynamics that others may think will not work)?
  • What process do we follow if we cannot resolve a conflict among ourselves?

Team Communication

  • What will our communication norms be? (Communication norms could include: frequency of team communication, plans for addressing communication problems, plans for conducting research meetings, ways of discussing team functioning, what to do if teammates don’t communicate as expected.)

Using the template

We recommend that the whole team meet to complete the template. To stimulate reflection on it, each of the three dimensions is introduced using two prompts (shown below) which team members are asked to score individually and then discuss. 

l-michelle-bennett_dialogue-prompts_collaboration-agreement-template
Prompts to stimulate dialogue for (from top to bottom): team management, team dynamics, and team communication (source: Bennett, Cardenas and O’Rourke, 2022)

Because team members are not always trained to engage each other in dialogue when different views are shared, we included a primer in the template called “Engaging with Prompts” that provides a brief example of how dialogue might unfold between team members.

  • Directions:
    Once you have rated the prompt, you can begin the dialogue with the following two statements: (i) “This is what I scored….” followed by (ii) “I scored it this way because…”.
  • Example:

    Using the prompt: We understand what deep integration looks like in our project.

    • Team member 1: “I scored it a 3. I scored it this way because I have been part of projects where the different disciplines really connected the work well and I see that happening in this project. However, the “we” gets me. I don’t know how others understand deep integration because we haven’t discussed it.”
    • Team member 2: “I scored it a 4. I scored it this way because I felt like we laid out what integration meant to us in the proposal, and I think we’re hitting those marks. I didn’t score it a 5 because there are people I haven’t spoken to on the project and I’m not sure they are aligned with my interpretation of integration. Is this something we should discuss as a team further?”
    • Team member 3: Etc
    • Prompts serve as a mechanism for helping teams reflect on one another’s perspectives and enhance mutual understanding.

After the responses to the prompts have been discussed, the team as a whole develops answers to the questions outlined earlier. An example of how the questions appear in a relevant section of the template is shown below.

The team’s answers should clarify:

  • how each question is understood,
  • how proposed collaboration steps are to be implemented, and
  • how teammates will be held accountable for following these steps.
    These responses represent explicit attempts to be transparent about how the team will function in their project.
l-michelle-bennett_team-example-question_collaboration-agreement-template
Example of a question to be answered by the whole team in the collaboration template, following discussion of individual responses to the prompts (source: Bennett, Cardenas and O’Rourke, 2022)

For a team to realize the full value of their collaboration agreement, they should revisit it from time to time, updating it when appropriate (eg., when there is a change in team membership, when the project vision has shifted, and when tensions arise among team members).

Concluding remarks

The template is a generic version of one originally developed for the US National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator Program. It is based on Bennett et al. (2018) and Hall et al. (2019). The process is based on that used by the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (Hubbs et al. 2020).

Would such a template be useful in your collaborations? Have you developed other ways of fostering transparent processes in your collaborative projects?

To find out more and for a copy of the template:

Bennett, L. M., Cardenas, E. and O’Rourke, M. (2022). Collaboration agreement template (Version 1). Zenodo. (Online): https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6394789

References:

Bennett, L. M., Gadlin, H. and Marchand, C. (2018). Collaboration and Team Science Field Guide. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, United States of America. (Online, open access): https://www.cancer.gov/about-nci/organization/crs/research-initiatives/team-science-field-guide/collaboration-team-science-guide.pdf (850KB PDF)

Hall, K. L., Vogel, A. L. and Crowston, K. (2019). Comprehensive collaboration plans: Practical considerations spanning across individual collaborators to institutional supports. In, K. L. Hall, A. L. Vogel, and R. T. Croyle, (Eds.), Advancing Social and Behavioral Health Research through Cross-Disciplinary Team Science: Principles for Success (pp. 587–612), Springer, Berlin/Heidelberg: Germany. (Online, the chapter is open access): https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-20992-6_45

Hubbs, G., O’Rourke, M. and Orzack, S. H. (Eds.). (2020). The Toolbox Dialogue Initiative: The Power of Cross-Disciplinary Practice. CRC Press: Boca Raton, FL, United States of America. (Online): https://www.routledge.com/The-Toolbox-Dialogue-Initiative-The-Power-of-Cross-Disciplinary-Practice/Hubbs-ORourke-Orzack/p/book/9781138341685

Biography: L. Michelle Bennett PhD is the principal at LMBennett Consulting, LLC, based in Potomac, Maryland, USA. Her main areas of interest are creating conditions for innovation within teams and organizations.

Biography: Edgar Cardenas PhD is an associate director for the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative Service Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing, USA. His work focuses on developing collaborative capacity for cross-disciplinary teams through structured dialogue and collective creativity approaches for strategic planning.

Biography: Michael O’Rourke PhD directs the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (TDI) and the Center for Interdisciplinarity at Michigan State University in East Lansing, USA, where he is Professor of Philosophy and faculty in AgBioResearch. He is a founding member of TDI, which has been funded by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and several US National Science Foundation programs.

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