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How to... collaborate effectively

First steps

So we assume that you have made a successful research proposal or gained funding in some way for a collaborative project. Even before you start planning your work, and certainly before any money starts flowing, you should have a number of things in place:

  • A consortium agreement
  • Channels of communication
  • Kick off meeting(s).

A consortium agreement

Most funders will insist on seeing a copy of this with your application. Be sure you know exactly what it says, you may all be collectively responsible for any individual partner's lapses – a good reason for establishing excellent communication.

Channels of communication

Set up channels which suit your particular group. Consider a small number of focused e-mail discussion lists. Make sure that all partners are represented at a management level on an appropriate list, so that appropriate people can deal with matters of funding, reporting and administration and so that these matters are not drowned in a welter of details about the work. Most people prefer to "do real stuff" and let someone else worry about administrative and financial hassle – make sure your project management people are not left isolated while the researchers are researching and the developers developing.

Kick off meeting(s)

Even if you plan to use electronic or telephonic tools to aid remote collaboration, it is important to have face-to-face contact at the beginning of the project. Weight your meeting schedule towards the beginning of the project for this reason. It is much easier to sort things out by e-mail with your collaborators if you have spent the day talking together and the evening having dinner a few months before.

Some people resist travelling – try to include them anyway, by rotating meeting venues or scheduling meetings around other events such as conferences or workshops. It has even been known to be popular to hold meetings in attractive venues or in a big city in December when lots of people want to buy presents! Take advantage of such things to include as many of your project team as possible. Keeping the team happy and working together well will save a lot of time and hassle later on.

Issues to address at the beginning

Managing expectations and uncertainties

You and your partners may be unclear about how things are going to go. It is likely that you spent most of the previous months (or years) putting in place all the things demanded by your funders and revising and rewriting your proposal to enhance its chances of success. But now you have to consider what you actually want to do.

It may be a good idea to get each partner to bring to the kick off meeting a short summary that they can talk through using your commitments to your funders as a foundation of course, but also outlining why they are in this project and what they hope to get out of it. Often these things take a back seat in the battle to secure funding – now is the time to bring them to the front so that you are aware of the variety of agendas, hopes and expectations which exist across the project.

Private communication – how does it happen?

We have pointed to this above as an important issue. Get it on your project agenda and get your partners to agree, to "sign up".

Don't be too ambitious or onerous – no-one wants to be writing daily reports on their work – but recognize that regular reporting and communication is essential. Not only because it allows the project manager to keep track of progress but because it makes everyone concerned step back from the minute by minute demands of the work to review progress and look at what they should be doing and what they should have done.

There is a list of communication ideas and tools at the bottom of this article – scan it and choose the ones that suit your project or your sub-projects. Or devise your own mechanisms to suit the team.

Public communication – getting your message across

Most funders will require you to present your results for public attention (and hopefully acclaim). It may seem premature to be thinking about this at the stage where you haven't done anything yet – but you need to develop a strategy now. Partly because it is only too easy to leave this till the end of the project when the funds are drying up and the researchers are moving on to other things, but also because it will reassure your funders that you are taking it seriously. From their point of view, they are investing large sums of money in you – they want the public to know what is happening with that money – this is part of being accountable.

So think about regular public newsletters – e-mail and/or paper versions, papers to conferences and poster sessions, briefing sessions with local papers and radio. Get these things happening now and encourage all your partners to participate fully.

Working together on this will foster team spirit and lay down a foundation for working on trickier things when the "real work" starts.

Learn about press releases and seek out the PR expertise that you can call on. When your research does begin to bear fruit you will have the mechanisms in place to disseminate news of your achievements.

Clear monitoring mechanisms, targets and deliverables

Of course you will already have agreed deliverables with your funder, but often these are big. In fact, if you have been sensible, you will have restricted your big deliverables so that there are a small number of identifiable targets for you and your funders to agree on.

But often these big deliverables are too big for the individual teams and team members to tackle. Split them up into "internal deliverables", "internal milestones" and "internal reports". Encourage frequent informal reporting and INSIST that any formal reporting requirements are met with plenty of time to spare.

On a large multi-partner project it is absolutely essential to have the necessary timesheets, expenditure summaries, etc. correctly completed and up to date and ready for submission well before the deadline. It is hard enough for you to manage your project effectively and efficiently, you don't want to shackle yourself by having your funder's administrative contact on your back – be a perfect project, at least in fulfilling your contractual requirements.

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.

Useful communication tools

E-mail as a record

Everyone in your team should be using e-mail, but some people prefer to talk on the phone or face to face when there is a tricky issue to discuss.

If this happens, then make a brief e-mail record of important discussions or decisions taken during the conversation and send it to the people concerned. Then you all have a record of what's been said.

E-mail discussion and distribution lists

Investigate the best way to use these. They have great advantages. People can self administer them – so a large number of people don't have to maintain up to date address books. They will archive all correspondence so that you can look back at decisions and undertakings throughout the life of the project. They can be set to be private or public access.

You might like to use a public distribution (i.e. one way) list to disseminate your newsletter and a set of private discussion (i.e. all subscribers can participate) lists for team matters.

Teleconferencing

Teleconferencing (using telephones to bring together teams in distributed locations) can be a very powerful tool but it requires all participants to prepare carefully beforehand. This may turn out to be an advantage, since it is all too easy for people to attend face-to-face meetings without proper preparation.

You may find with teleconferencing, because there is a need for prior preparation and much less "off topic" discussion, that you can achieve in two hours what would have taken a whole day face to face. You can get some of the best of the both worlds by drawing together your participants in specific locations, so that you have seven people round a table talking into a phone in one city and three people in another city, etc.

If you are using a speaker phone on a meeting table then get a quiet room and the best quality telephone equipment you can – it makes a big difference to your remote audience if you have a high quality microphone and a big difference to your local audience if you have a high quality loudspeaker.

Our advice would be to book regular teleconference slots for the team and to hold them even if there seems to be little to say. Just getting them to submit a written progress report by e-mail prior to the meeting and briefly answering any questions on it will be very effective and may highlight issues of which the whole team was unaware.

The Web to share papers

The Web is a very effective medium for sharing up-to-date copies of working papers, agendas, minutes, etc. If you are holding a teleconference, the Web can be an invaluable aid.

Make sure that all participants have access to a networked computer as well as the telephone line – then you can call up key documents on screen without endless shuffling of different versions of paper documents.

Live "chat"

There are various electronic tools which simulate the ability to lean over your desk and make a comment or ask a question of the person next to you. The best known and most widely used of these is IRC – Internet Relay Chat. This enables ongoing conversations in real time without the delay of e-mail. It also tends to be more informal. Many researchers will have an IRC window open on their machine as they work and keep an eye on it in the same way that you might be available for occasional questions or comments from colleagues at a neighbouring desk.

Newsletters

As well as the newsletters designed for public consumption, there is great value in regular team newsletters, often distributed by e-mail but for large projects possibly done in a format suitable for printing (such as PDF). Getting people to contribute to these is always a struggle but it is worth the effort as it can be very good for team cohesiveness and morale. Get people to sign up to contributing so that they don't resent it when they are asked for contributions.