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How to... collaborate effectively

Options:     Print Version - How to... collaborate effectively, part 3 Print view

As you go along

As your collaboration and research project progresses you must pay attention to the importance of the following:

Project manager

Recognize the critical role and value of your effective project manager.

This may be the person called "Project Manager" or it may be an especially talented project assistant. Whoever it is, this role is key to the success of the project.

The person must be friendly but tenacious, prepared to ask several times for the right information and prepared to be firm without alienating your research partners.

It is sometimes an advantage if the manager is not actually involved in the research area, as long as she or he can understand the issues and get enough of an overview to know what's going on. This will enable the manager to take a disinterested view of debates and disagreements which may occur during the work. It may be: "Look, I don't know whether we need a widget or a wodget, what I do know is that we need to decide which we are using by this Friday and then all agree to use it across the whole project." Or, "Look, I don't know whether we need a widget or a wodget, I suggest team A use a widget and team B use a wodget and we will keep in touch and make a final decision by the end of the month."

Regular reporting

We mentioned this twice already but just in case you haven't got the message: communicate and persuade the rest of your partners to do the same.

If you have a weekly telephone call scheduled and there seems to be nothing to talk about, go ahead and have it anyway – you can always agree after five minutes that there is nothing to say, but you may find something surprising and critical comes up.

It's always worth keeping in touch with how people are feeling too – who has recently been bereaved, who is ill, who is going away on holiday who feels their work is going well and who doesn't.

Recognize different agendas

Remember the advice to get everyone to make public their hopes, expectations and agendas? Keep that in mind throughout the project.

Recognize that not all partners wanted the same thing out of the project and use this information to make your compromises explicit. It is far better to deal with this up front than to have subversive activity going on where a partner is doing one thing under the guise of another.

Recognize different cultures

Similarly, you must recognize different cultures and their effect on the team.

On an international project this may be national cultures – it may have an effect on where or when you can meet, on how women are viewed within the project and a host of other things. But even within one small country working cultures can vary enormously.

You may have a meetings culture where everything is chewed (literally) over sandwiches and coffee. Your partners may have an e-mail culture where they hardly see each other but expect you to read their latest thoughts at two in the morning. Some partners will already be used to working in teams, others will be talented individualist who like to set their own agendas.

Again it is much better to try and be explicit about these differences and recognize them with compromise and understanding on all sides.

Division of labour

Allow division of labour where appropriate. It may be that you were intending to build a whole jigsaw with a multi-talented, multinational team and things just haven't worked out that way. If people don't seem to be working together well and the management of every day working relationships is taking up too much of the project's time, then don't be afraid to recognize this. It may work much better to ask individual teams to make individual pieces of the jigsaw and put a diplomat in charge of piecing them together.

If you intended to take one approach but end up taking another, be honest and open about it, within your team and with your funder. Funders recognize that research work is unpredictable, they will not mind changes to the plan as long as they feel they are not being misled and that they are getting value for money, provided of course that they are consulted in proper time to give their approval.

Keep going!

It's fine to put all these good things in place at the beginning of the project and when things are going well. You also need to keep going when the project is reaching the end or when you come across difficulties, personality conflicts, etc.

  • Don't let people develop "bunker" mentalities where they are working away on their pet project and thinking that no-one understands them.
  • Don't avoid difficult issues by putting them off. They usually don't go away, no matter how hard you hope they will.
  • Keep your mechanisms in place, keep people talking and keep on track.

You may be temporarily unpopular with your project partners for insisting on meeting deadlines, addressing conflicts and airing difficult issues but they will be grateful in the end.

If you manage to steer a successful course from beginning to end of the project, your institution, the funders and your whole team will recognize your key contribution to their success. You will find it easier to get partners for future projects with this successful one behind you – and you won't be starting all over again, as your existing partners will be keen to work with you again and you already share a culture of working together developed through your successful collaboration.