Tag Archives: collaboration challenges

working collaboratively

Working collaboratively means welcoming tension

Most of us recognise that in specific situations, collaboration is the ideal mode of delivery. We are also getting instinctively better at understanding when it is needed.

For example, we know we need to collaborate if achieving our aims requires a creative solution developed in a complex environment, breadth of expertise, or buy-in and shared ownership from stakeholders. Interestingly, these are often the higher impact challenges or issues we face.

We also know that working collaboratively is almost always challenging. Collaborative efforts are prone to failure and often don’t quite deliver on our expectations. 

Knowing all these things increases the importance of being able to collaborate well when it is required. But this requires diagnosing why it so often goes awry.

Through some 400 collaborative projects over the last decade at Collabforge, we’ve learned a great deal about working collaboratively. We’ve found that understanding the challenges provides valuable cues for setting yourself up for success.

1. Missing “chair”

You and I know what collaboration means, but as a society, we don’t.

There is a gap in our shared understanding. Because collaboration is in our DNA, we get fooled into thinking that we have a common reference point we can rely on – a “chair” we can sit in when needed.

But when it comes to working collaboratively, there are no broadly accepted definitions or methodologies that we can take for granted like there are with project management. So often we fall on our bums when we try to sit in this missing chair.

2. Missing “team”

Collaboration is a team sport.

All great teams need to build their collective capability together. No one would ever expect a team to win a match without first practicing as a team.

Yet organisations regularly form new teams to tackle new challenges, without resourcing the teams to build collaborative capability prior to being expected to deliver.

We expect professionals to be competent collaborators straight out of the gate, in whatever situation we throw them at. However, we’ve likely all had the experience of feeling we are great at working collaboratively, only to discover that in certain situations and with certain people, we aren’t so great after all.

3. Missing “elephant”

When collaborating with other organisations, an implicit question is always, “will we ride your elephant or mine?”

To get their work done, collaboratively or otherwise, organisations rely upon a large and complex integration of culture, processes and tools – an “elephant” their staff members ride.

No one is excited to get down off their elephant and climb onto another unknown and likely cantankerous beast. And frankly, this isn’t a very collaborative undertaking.

However, taking a more collaborative approach and creating a new shared set of culture, tools and processes is often expensive, time intensive and risky. This amounts to launching and managing an elephant breeding program.

Even the task of deciding who will take on these risks, costs and energy can kill a collaboration before it begins.

Preparing to succeed when working collaboratively

1. Invest in building collaboration capability proportionately to the impact you expect it to deliver.

If the outcomes from an initiative are 80% dependent upon great collaboration, then use this percentage as an indicator of the level of resourcing you should commit to building and supporting collaborative capability.

2. Invest time upfront to establish common ground.

Whenever collaboration is an important part of the mix, you’ll get the most out of thinking and talking about it early in the process. Discuss key terms, concepts and assumptions about processes, tools, and, of course, the expected outcomes and impact of your collaboration.

3. Practice working collaborating as a team, separately from the responsibility of delivery.

Ideally from the outset, create opportunities for collaboration that are fun, engaging and decoupled from delivery. For example, ask the group to build a prototype of the imagined outcome in Lego.

4. Facilitate a regular rhythm of collaborative interactions.

The biggest risk to collaborative initiatives is flagging momentum and dropping balls in handovers between organisations. Having a regular and facilitated rhythm of interaction is key to maintaining momentum, continuity and building collective capability.

5. Design for growth while welcoming tension.

Collaborations generate value through the process of resolving tensions within groups. For example, every new participant will necessarily introduce tension and challenges as they are brought up to speed.

Without the challenge of diverse ideas and approaches, groupthink reigns, with peer pressure and conformity shutting down the “hard conversations”. When this happens, the fitness and value of the group’s output drops dramatically.

Therefore, it’s essential to enter collaborations expecting diversity and the challenge of ideas, but to also design processes for resolving these tensions before progressing to the next stage.

While collaboration still largely inhabits the realm of “art”, the likelihood of success is dramatically increased by practice that is supported by theory and method. The first step in working collaboratively is to build shared understanding of the inherent barriers so that we can align better together to overcome them.

Dr Mark Elliott

Managing Director and Founder, Collabforge

Read next: Petra Andrén, CEO of Cicada Innovations, uncovers the collaborative mechanisms that are vital to successful research, industry and startup activity.

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global collaboration

Global collaboration and emerging trends

Featured image above: global collaboration. Credit Eric Fischer, Flickr

Robin, having been in this space for several years, can you tell us what is different about university-industry collaboration now, compared with 5 or 10 years ago? Have you noticed any trends emerging that we might see driving partnerships in the future?

We’ve been in the space for around four years, and in this short period of time we’ve seen a shift towards greater openness between universities and industry. Local governments, especially in countries where the knowledge-economy is becoming more important as manufacturing starts to wind down, have in part aided this change. Education throughout the industry community through shared membership bodies has also been key to improving relationships.

There’s a highly cited statistic from the UK government commissioned Dowling Review, that only 2% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) would think to consult their local university if they came upon a technological challenge. This is something that needs to change. It’s crucial that governments continue to engage in improving university-industry collaboration, bringing down financial barriers which hinder interactions for smaller companies. Grants for joint projects help do this, and private grant-writing companies within the space also play a role for companies wanting to access money but unsure how to go about it.

In the UK the Impact Agenda, which formed part of the government’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) for 2014, was party to much scepticism. Universities were required to submit case studies regarding the Impact of their research on industry, governmental policy and direct public impact. The level of funding for universities was affected by the impact of these case studies which were each given a score. It meant quite a culture shift took place in UK universities, especially for academics whose funding is now directly linked to external engagement (at least partially).

IP and ownership concerns are considered by many in Australia as one of the most difficult barriers to university-industry collaboration. How can organisations do better at addressing IP?

It’s good timing for this question, as recently our Head of Growth, Owen Nicholson, was part of the group developing the UK government’s Lambert Toolkit. It was launched last week and comprises a set of contracts for use by university and industry undergoing partnership discussions. The Lambert Toolkit contracts are not set in stone, but provide a great starting place and will certainly speed up that initial discussion when it comes to IP rights. I could see these types of blueprints being used globally. Owen’s insights on the Lambert Toolkit can be found here.

The valuation of early-stage research is, to my mind, an incredibly difficult process. In some sense, this does give a potential industry partner a better stake in negotiations, but they take on larger amounts of risk in doing so. With all things contractual, it’s about negotiation and making sure both parties are comfortable with the arrangement.

Can you share with us any insights into other major global collaboration barriers?

We’re currently working on removing some other barriers, one of which is how companies access worldwide university expertise easily. Currently all I can say is ‘watch this space’, but lest to say we’re looking to further our vision of helping unlock university knowledge.

In your opinion, is there scope for better university-industry partnerships between Australia and the UK?

In our experience there should be no barriers to global collaboration and partnership, however some universities in certain locations have evolved research specialisms in line with their economy, providing cutting-edge developments within particular areas (e.g. renewable energy technology in coastal areas, or agricultural developments in areas surrounded by farmland).

Australia has a great diversity of research, developed by world-leading scientists, and our excitement at working with universities in the country is causative of our audience. Our industry users are forever keen for us to widen our breadth of technology and research available in new territories they’ve previously had little access to. For many in Europe and the U.S., especially SMEs, Australia represents such a territory.

To hear more from Dr Robin Knight about the blueprints to a global collaboration boom, click here.

profile_inpartrobin

Dr Robin Knight is Co-founder and Director of UK-based university-industry collaboration platform IN-PART.

Click here to find out more about global collaboration opportunities with IN-PART. To find more industry-ready technology from Australian universities, visit Source IP.