How to deal with ‘sloths’ in your collaborative partnerships

Do you know why sloths have green backs? You might be thinking that you did not even know that sloths had green backs, or that you don’t care. But, it is interesting beyond being a geeky scientist factoid.

Sloths have green backs because of a collaboration. To be more precise ‘symbiosis’.

Because they move so slowly, algae grows on their fur. This helps camouflage them amongst the leaves of trees. To keep the algae under control there are hundreds or thousands of beetles that feed on the algae. There is even a species of moth that makes the fur of sloths it home – a sloth moth.

When slow is not symbiotic

In ambitious science and innovation projects there is no time to let algae grow on your back.

It is pretty much a given that in this day and age that ambitious science and innovation projects require collaborative partnerships. Even the breadth of collaborative partnerships is increasing to the point where science and innovation are becoming more of a societal activity. This means that the success of ambitious projects is dependent on the performance of many others.

There is a tremendous amount of extra effort that has to be invested in any project that involves collaboration. This is the so called cost of coordination. Even if you adopt a more loose approach to collaboration, as Clay Shirky suggests in one of his talks at TED, the success of your project is dependent upon the performance of individual partners.

Partners that function like slow moving ‘sloths’ can submarine an entire project. 

The few who carry the entire weight of a collaborative partnership

Most collaborative partnerships are perfect examples of the Pareto Principle.

The Pareto principle holds that when you look at distributions you often find a skewed imbalance. The classic description is that of a company where 20%  products or services account for 80% of the profits. One should focus on that 20%,  and even consider dropping the other 80%.

Similarly, we all have been in collaborative efforts where it seems a small group, 20% or so, of key individuals do most, if not all of the work. These 20%ers are high performance collaborators. 

It is indeed nice to be a 20%er. You gain admiration and praise.  You also have an excuse not to do that useless activity known as sleeping.

Yet, it is clear that having input from multiple people clearly makes for a better end result.  The most creative pieces of art or music, or science are the result of combining viewpoints.

In his book The Medici Effect Frans Johansson  points out that:

“When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas. The name I have given this phenomenon, the Medici Effect, comes from a remarkable burst of creativity in fifteenth-century Italy.”

So, by definition, if 20% of the people in any given project are producing 80% of the work, that project is losing the potential cocontribution of the 80% who put little into the project.

Why do partners underperform in a collaborative partnership?

There are many reasons why partners underperform. Here is a list of the most common:

  1.  Competing priorities
  2.  Lack of knowledge about the project
  3.  They don’t believe in the project
  4.  Procrastination
  5.  Poor organization
  6.  Too busy eating shoots and leaves

All of these reasons point to one fundamental problem – a tendency to over commit.

Most don’t want to let an opportunity to be part of something bigger pass them by. “Of course I’ll participate in a project on new techniques to count beans and improve how fast they can be counted. It’s more funding, and it might be my big breakthrough.”

How can we move towards a better balance?

The first and most obvious solution is just to eject that useless 80%. An appealing option. However, faced with an ambitious project this would mean that the remaining 20% would turn into sleep deprived zombies. Nonetheless, there might be some efficiency gain to be had. 

Ways to get better performance in your collaborative partnerships

  1. Improve the organization of under-performers (make the sloths move faster): Often simple reminders or having to provide an update are ways to get people moving. So, adding a layer of project management can go a long way towards making a collaborative partnership more performant.
  2. Make sure that the objectives of all partners are being met (know what kind of leaves the sloths like to eat): It will take some effort to first understand the individual objectives of all your partners, and to secondly design your project so that those individual objectives are being met, but it is worth it. It is much easier to get contributions from someone when it is clear to them how they will benefit.
  3. Building a buzz about the project (enticing the sloths with the promise of better trees): Collaborative partnerships require pull management, not push management. Having a strong shared vision can help get better engagement. While meeting everyone’s individual objectives is important, people do like contributing to a meaningful project regardless of personal benefit.
  4. Better communication (let the sloths know there are panthers trying to climb the tree they are in): Some collaborative partnerships are set up to just meet every 3-6 months. How can you expect people to contribute when they only talk to each other 4 times a year? In convergent science and innovation projects it takes time to even understand what those from other disciplines or perspectives are saying, let alone working together to troubleshoot a complex project.
  5. Name and shame (call a sloth a sloth): This strategy works if done in a non personal way. Open and honest communication even if confrontational cultivates a culture of trust and cooperation.
  6. Increase the number of 20%ers (turn the sloths into fast climbing monkeys): This is the ideal method. However, it takes time and requires an individual commitment. First it is important to understand what a 20%er is.

Characteristics of high performing collaborators, or 20%ers

High performing collaborators have a certain set of characteristics. They:

  1. Are doers
  2. Believe in realistic plans and expectations
  3. Know when to say no
  4. Constantly looking to improve efficiency
  5. Frequently tap into their network of experts
  6. Are eager to contribute

It is important to recognise who the 20%ers are and give them more of a leadership role. The aim should be to increase the percentage of 20%ers you have in your collaborative partnerships. It can also be said that high performance collaboration is a skill, a transferable skill, that will define future science and innovation leaders. 

The best collaborative partnerships are those that strive to move beyond the pareto principle and have 50, 60, or even 70% of the partners functioning as high performance collaborators. Of course when that happens the term ‘20%er’ becomes obsolete.

Who is doing most of the work in your collaborative partnerships?

You really don’t have to accept low performing collaborative partnerships. Get in touch. Tell me about your challenges and if anything I can point you in the right direction to find a solution. scottwagers@biosciconsulting.com  +32 89 25 4009


This post has been reworked based on an original post that I published when Assembled Chaos was in its early days. 

Scott Wagers, MD is focused on forming and managing consortia that can deliver on projects that change the future of medicine. He blogs about collaboration, big projects, and data

About The Author

Scott Wagers

Scott Wagers, MD is focused on forming and managing consortia that can deliver on projects that change the future of medicine. He blogs about collaboration, big projects, and data