Collaboration is the big buzzword in research at the moment and in theory the benefits are clear: your name on more papers, you learn from other groups and you expand your reputation.
Why is it, then, that I hear so many postdocs and mid-career researchers complain bitterly about their collaborations? About collaborative projects that are slow to achieve their goals, that leave just one person to pick up all the work and generate endless hassle?
One of the problems is that collaborations often happen over and above everyone’s base workload. Because collaborators are often not within the same group, there is little pressure for progress and precious little communication about how to proceed, or solve problems. So the tasks associated with the collaboration end up on the bottom of the to-do list; and for many people that means they soon fall off the list and nothing gets done.
I’ve recently been part of three collaborations which stood out a mile in terms of ease of progress. We worked through problems together and everyone contributed effectively. Collaboration heaven!
In all three cases I’m convinced our way of communicating made all the difference, and I’ve distilled 6 Golden Rules from the experience. Apply these and you will see a big difference in your next collaboration.
1. Have regular meetings at a set time
I can almost hear you groan! – but I believe this is the essential ingredient for a great collaboration. Depending on your project, you may only need to meet (in person or virtually) once a month, or you may want to meet weekly. Frequency may vary during the different phases of a project, but it is better to meet for a short time to decide there is nothing to resolve, than to have long gaps in communication. Agree in the beginning on a time that suits everyone and stick to this time so it becomes a habit for everyone.
For example, with one of my recent collaborations, I agreed on a weekly 30 min call at 6.30 in the morning. I’m not at all a morning person but I got up religiously every week – even on cold winter mornings. My husband thought his real wife had been kidnapped by aliens! Such was the pressure and responsibility to contribute to the group that no excuse would do.
2. Make attending the meetings as easy as possible
These days, online technology makes meetings so much easier and more efficient. My experience is that unless you are less than a 10-minute walk away from each other, ‘virtual’ meetings are much more likely actually to take place, since there is no travel time to put people off. It may take a little while to get used to virtual meetings but their advantages – especially over not having regular catch-ups – are substantial.
You can meet via Skype group calls or Mac Facetime, for example (free), or use telephone conference calls (available with many university telephone systems or from external companies at little cost). Whatever you choose, make sure it’s easy for everyone to access so people don’t use the hassle of participating as an excuse to skip the meeting.
3. Make use of complementary technology
Virtual meetings have an added advantage that your can use online technology for working on documents, discussing data or developing a concept together. In recent collaborations, we used Google Drive to work on shared documents, as well as create minutes, action items and agendas while we were live on the Skype call. Everyone could edit in real time, at the same time, which turned out to be both efficient and a creative process. There are plenty of document-sharing platforms. Your institute’s firewall may determine what you are allowed to use, but it’s well worth trying out a few options.
Try not make meetings too complicated or use technologies others are not comfortable with. A quick discussion with all participants will show whether the high-tech option or the simple voice-only version is the most effective meeting platform for each collaboration.
4. Choose section leaders and review progress regularly
Collaborations often fail because no-one wants to take leadership, the nominated leader does not do his or her job, or those taking the lead burn out because they get left to do all the work.
One way to deal with this is to choose different ‘section’ leaders from within the group for individual sub-projects or actions, and reassign leadership roles regularly to maintain a balanced workload. This means responsibilities are shared, things can get done in parallel and no-one gets left overwhelmed and bitter! It’s also a great way to engage everyone in the process, even very junior or senior people who might not normally be so directly involved in project operations.
Who chooses the section leaders? Ideally people should self-select for those parts of the project they are best suited to. This may take a little while, for example with a first-time group that has only formed recently, but it will get easier once everyone sees that responsibilities get shared around in an equitable way and that they don’t get stuck with doing everything just because they put their hands up for a task.
How to keep the different leaders on track? Since you are holding regular meetings to discuss progress, it quickly becomes obvious who is not ‘pulling their weight’, who may need more help or whether roles should be switched. Group pressure alone spurs many collaborators into action, when they realise they’ll have to admit for the third meeting in a row that they haven’t completed what they promised to do, while everyone else has!
5. Create agendas, minutes and action items with deadlines and names against them
There is a common ‘anatomy’ of an effective meeting and your regular collaborative meetings are no exception. You should have a plan (agenda), a record of progress (minutes) and agree on action items, the date by which they should be completed and who should take the lead on each.
A short standard agenda for each meeting could be an update of each section leader’s progress, discussion of any problems occurring, planning of next steps and deciding on resulting actions, putting the names of the responsible section leader against each item.
It is important to have at least the action items in writing and circulate them among the group as soon as possible after each meeting, so it is clear who is meant to do what and in what timeframe. You can simply use email, or a platform such as Google Drive for live minute-taking, or one of the many free project management apps that allow you to create ‘to-do’ lists you can share with others (such as Trello or Asana).
6. Keep an open mind
The real power of collaborations is that they often bring together people with very different strengths and experiences, offering the chance of creating something truly new and innovative.
This also means you will be working with people who may be very different to you when it comes to working styles, personality types and expectations, and this might take a little time to get used to.
In one of my collaborations this year, at every meeting the team took ages to get going, which I found very frustrating. For the first 15, sometimes 30, minutes of each 1-hour meeting, it always seemed we were going nowhere: but then ‘magic’ somehow always started to happen and we made great leaps with trouble-shooting and new ideas. The less patient among us (about half the group!) tried a few things to move the group more quickly to the ‘magic’ time, but nothing seemed to work. So we learned to live with our ‘warm-up’ time since, in the end, each meeting was always hugely productive.
It taught me a valuable lesson about tolerance, keeping an open mind and giving a group time to develop a communication style that works for the team as a whole. The most important part is to keep communicating.
So here they are again, my 6 Golden Rules of communication for collaborations that work:
- Have regular meetings at a set time
- Make attending the meetings as easy as possible
- Make use of complementary technology
- Choose section leaders and review progress regularly
- Create agendas, minutes and action items with deadlines and names against them
- Keep an open mind
If you found these Rules helpful or I’ve missed out an important point or tool that you have found really helpful in collaborations, I’d love to hear from you. If so, please leave a comment below.