Collaboration is an investment strategy.
When I was starting out in research, I was afraid to collaborate. I didn’t think I could give something in return. That was naive. Collaboration is about much more than just sharing data or sharing techniques. Many researchers, in fact, treat collaboration as something they should do, like exercise or getting enough sleep, but spend a little time thinking about how to collaborate.
Yet, you spend a lot of time on collaboration. A lot of time on meetings and teleconferences. A lot of time writing proposals. A lot of time soothing political sensitivities. Collaborations are big investments. Like any investment, you should do your utmost to maximise return. The question is how?
Quite simple, really. You can do one of two things.
- Reduce the amount of effort you put into a collaboration
- Increase the benefit you derive from a collaboration.
You can reduce the amount of effort you invest in a collaboration by not showing up to teleconferences and meetings. In the short term, this would be an effective strategy. This is exactly the strategy suggested by many personal development gurus when they advise you to stop going to meetings. This is, however, a cop out.
Just reducing your effort is not a good strategy. Sure, in the short term your relative return on the effort you invest in collaboration will increase, but what will it mean for the collaboration?
It won’t last. Your return will diminish or disappear as the collaboration falls apart. Then what can you do to reduce your effort?
Increase your operational efficiency. Efficiency is about getting the same or more benefit with less effort. In fact, increased operational efficiency may mean having more meetings or teleconferences. Brief weekly meetings can be more efficient than holding on to all your questions and issues for a month or longer.
Instead of not going to meetings. You should focus on making them better. A good illustration of how you can do this is nicely detailed in this post written by Christian Jarrett. He points out that one secret weapon to taking your projects to a higher level is to “appreciate the psychological factors that turn a group of individuals into a cohesive team unit.” There are many ways like this to increase your collaborative operational efficiency. There is, however, one thing you need to do first.
Gain an appreciation for the benefits of collaboration.
A good understanding of the benefits can deliver a double whammy. It not only illuminates ways to increase operational efficiency, it also helps identify ways you can magnify the benefits. For example, if one of the benefits of being in a collaboration is gaining knowledge on a particular topic, you should be efficient by focusing on meetings or communications on that topic and increase your benefit by making sure you attend all relevant meetings and asking insightful questions.
It all begins with the benefits of collaboration. Here is a list of 20 of the most obvious:
- Higher impact publications: There is a direct correlation between the number of authors and impact factor. Not much more needs to be said. This is probably more a reflection of the fact that good science requires the combined efforts of many good scientists.
- More creativity: Interestingly enough, when you study broadway musicals those that had a balance of people who had worked together before and complete strangers were the most successful. Collaborations tend to encourage such mixtures.
- Future: Collaborations are always filled with potential. Those you collaborate with today will think of you tomorrow when they are putting together a 20 million euro grant proposal.
- Less work: Done well, collaboration means less work for everyone without compromising on results.
- Criticism: Collaborators are more likely to tell you that in reality, you are not wearing any clothes. Debating ideas is also important for creativity and achieving Group Genius
- Ability to bring more experience to bare: Once you have conceived the idea for a project, the work becomes a series of problems you have to solve. Tapping into the distributed intelligence of a group increases your chances of solving problems more efficiently.
- Efficient learning: Papers, books, SOPs tend to tell you how to do something, but don’t give you a sense of what it is to actually do that something. Seeing how a team of experts solves a problem is the best learning that there is. In fact, where else can you have such ready access to ask questions of people who are actually doing what you are interested in. Caution. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your non-expert question will annoy the experts. Quite to the contrary, such questions are the highest form of flattery.
- A Wider array of techniques: Within any give lab group, department, institution, or company there are only so many techniques available to answer the scientific questions that interest you. Collaboration makes all techniques available.
- Deeper research: In a collaboration, you are forced to do more than clip the top of trees. A concern that is often raised is that others will steal your ideas. If your ideas are easily stolen, face it, they are not deep enough. If someone does steal your shallow ideas you should be happy. Then you can move on the deeper more interesting aspects.
- Funding: Getting funding in Europe and the US it is typically much easier in the context of a collaboration. Funding agencies believe in the power of collaboration, so should you.
- Increased number of publications: Related to #9 above, the deeper the research the more publications. Plus, your work is less likely to be a one-hit wonder when you already have a whole group of people working on the same topic.
- Students and post docs: There is no better way to find good staff than networking. There are no better and more concrete networks than the networks that are built through collaborations.
- Patents: In this day and age the increasing complexity of research technology and the explosion of measurable variables require multi-faceted approaches that can only be achieved in collaboration.
- Higher likelihood of having a spinoff: Similar to the above, its unlikely that working on your own you will know enough or have the ability to create a spinoff company.
- Fun: When we first got word that we were successful with the U-BIOPRED proposal, the Coordinator, Peter Sterk said “This is going to be so much fun.” It is no fun to party on your own. The same is true for research.
- Knowledge of what others are doing: You can read papers or look at patent filings, yet there is no better way to know what others are doing than talking to them. In industry and in research it is always best to be where everyone else is.
- Less risk: There are many more degrees of freedom with a collaborative network than there are with a single lab following a single line of research. Risk mitigation is much easier when you have a whole group to draw upon.
- Agility: When you are working in a collaborative network and you come across an unexpected finding, it is far more likely that you can exploit that finding in the setting of a collaboration.
- Early adopters: You collaboration partners are almost by definition your early adopters for your novel approach, new technology, or new hypothesis. You can also think about it as the best way to foster paradigm shift. It all begins with a dedicated group of core believers.
- Impressing investors: That what you are doing is accepted by a group of leaders in the field is no better argument for convincing investors. This is also true for funding agencies.
Each and every one of these benefits is a reason why you should invest in collaboration. Most collaborations will deliver a multitude of these benefits. Decide which benefits are most important for you and then use them guideposts for how you can increase operational efficiency and maximise benefit.
Like most things in your bin of ‘should do more of’ collaboration is a proactive investment that pays enormous dividends. The math is simple, collaborate less effectively and the dividends will be less. Optimize your collaborations and your returns will far outstrip your investment.