The 7 deadly sins of collaboration and how to mitigate their impact

The 7 deadly sins of collaboration and how to mitigate their impact

I was a pulmonologist and a researcher with my own lab at the University of Vermont. I met my future wife, a Belgian, and as our relationship grew we agreed to try to move to Europe if I could find work as a physician researcher. After a year or so that seemed to be the case. We made plans, got married, got pregnant and bought a house in Belgium. in April 2006 we moved and while I anticipated that moving to Belgium would be a major life changing event I did not anticipate the extent to which that would be true.

EU directives are just ‘directives’. It is for each country within the EU to implement each directive how they see fit. Literally as we were moving the Netherlands was passing the laws that would meet the requirement of allowing non-EU citizens married to EU citizens to work within the Netherlands. We had lined up a job for me as a physician scientist in the Netherlands close to the house we had bought in Belgium. The law passed by The Netherlands made the right to work in the Netherlands when you are married to an EU citizen dependent upon actually living in The Netherlands. Hence, despite signing a contract I was not allowed to have a tax ID number I needed to be able to work in The Netherlands. There had to be a way around it.

We talked to lawyers and politicians. There was nothing we could do. In fact, a politician in the Dutch province of Limburg was very interested in my case. Dutch Limburg sits between Germany and Belgium and thus has a large number of people who cross a border to work in Dutch Limburg. My case was documented in a video that was used to argue the case for changing the law in The Netherlands, but that was not going to be of any help in the short term. New country, new house, baby on the way and no job.

Yes, we could have tried to game the system and set up a false address in The Netherlands, or even just moved there. Yet our house was quite a unique find, living in The Netherlands would have been different than Belgian, and as you could imagine my enthusiasm for the job I had lined up had waned quite a bit. So, to mitigate the potential financial disaster we were facing, after our daughter was born I went back to the US for a couple of months locum tenens work. When I returned I was still facing the same identity and financial crisis. What was I going to do?

Upon my return I was offered the opportunity to start my own business and support some applications to the European Union’s Framework 7 programme. i had been involved in some grant proposals in the US and it was income. So, quite clueless I began to work to understand what was required of FP-7 proposals. It was a significant learning effort and the first two were not successful and both were extremely challenging experiences. Something I was not seeking to repeat any time soon.

Then I got the phone call. An experienced physician scientist from the UK who had been part of one of the proposals was on the line. “You did a good job with that last proposal. There is a new programme we are getting people together to apply for would you be interested in getting involved.” I told him that was not sure that supporting proposals was something I wanted to continue doing. However I asked him who the Coordinator would be and it turns out that was a fateful question.

His answer made the decision easy. The Coordinator was to be a scientist who was very well respected in the field of asthma physiology which happened to be the topic i was researching at the University of Vermont. I could not say no. The programme was the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) and the first call had not yet been published. I got involved in supporting that proposal and it was successful. I remember the phone call from Peter, the Coordinator. He said that I did not seem that excited. While I assured him that I was, it was indeed a watershed moment that gave me pause.

My hesitation on the phone was that I was already beginning to wonder how Peter and I were going to manage this giant ‘consortium’. It was difficult to even conceive of what the challenges would be.

Now that U-BIOPRED has ended and I have had the privilege to work in several other consortia I can think of any number of challenges we have faced. Here are my top 7, the seven deadly sins of collaboration and how to address them based on the meta-principles of lean collaboration from the previous post.

1. Discontinuous communication: You cannot expect to put individuals from different companies, disciplines, and cultures who are geographically dispersed and expect that communication will be anything but difficult.

If you are working in a project and want to have an excuse for not doing something, complain about the communication. Even in the most well organised consortia communication will be suboptimal.

understanding-shutterstock_247522288Even things that should not be difficult become a challenge. For example calendar invites. Within a company an individual sets up an invite and everyone has it automatically in their calendar. Once you go outside of a company invites only appear when an individual accepts the invite. If everyone answered all their email all the time this would work. Whats even worse is when there needs to be an update and a meeting is moved or canceled often the old item on the calendar hangs around. It results in mass confusion.

The problem of communication is writ large in consortia and you cannot expect it to be easily solved.  Many problems and most bottlenecks in progress can be traced to problems in communication.

With well over 200 work package years experience I can say unequivocally that work packages that do not meet frequently will do poorly. When one of my colleagues come to me with a problem work package it is always the case that either the work package as whole or key individuals are not meeting on a regular basis. Communication improves delivery.

You would never imagine conducting a large complex project with your own internal group only talking to each other once every three months. The problem is magnified many fold in consortia because you don’t know the people you are working with at least typically not very well.

How to apply lean collaboration meta-principles:  Insist upon frequent and continuous communication. Face to face is the best but not practical to do on a weekly or even monthly basis in a geographically distributed consortium. Conference calls are the next best.

Many people don’t like conference calls, but the alternative, discontinuous communication is worse. A 1 hour conference call a month is less than 1% of your time. If you are not willing to spend 1% of your time communicating about what you are doing in a working group you should not be in that working group.

An important aspect is that the whole working group should be present. If you resort to small group calls you fly in the face of the transparency principle and you lose the power of transdisciplinarity. Take attendance and follow up with those who are conspicuously absent.

Well run conference calls can be very productive. Towards the end of U-BIOPRED there were 30 conference calls a month as well as face to face meetings every 2-3 months.

2. Exemplary demonstration of the 80/20 principle: I wrote about the 80/20 principle in an earlier post. In short the cynical relevance of the 80/20 principle in consortia is that 20% of the individuals working on a project do 80% of the work. This reflects both a flagrant refusal by some to do any work and an enormous differential in individual productivity. The reality is that for most the consortium is not a top priority. Even students and post docs who are 100% on the project have other educational or teaching obligations that distract them from working on the project. It is perhaps understandable as consortium work falls outside of the usual internal hierarchy and management controls that are linked to one’s salary. This is not always the case and there is more and more interest in making consortia work part of an individuals performance evaluation. The U-BIOPRED project has had 5 or more statisticians work on the clinical study analysis largely because more pressing internal needs have pulled statisticians away from the project. Yet the stats work got done and i will go into more detail on how in a later post. Overall it is easy to see how if you were part of that 20% doing all the work it is easy to develop consortium fatigue.

How to apply lean collaboration meta-principles: Shared vision is perhaps your most powerful tool in getting more resource to the project. If you have a clear shared vision and you ask people to help you achieve or help resolve an issue that is blocking progress they usually help. Iteration can also be helpful here. Individuals who are feeling overwhelmed will often welcome an outline or a first draft it means they have less hard thinking to do. Alternatively if it is completely off base you will motivate them to correct the first draft and put something down themselves.

3. Unnecessary complexity: By their very nature consortia are complex. At a minimum they generate another layer of governance. They also tend to be ambitious which increases complexity. A simple example is a multi-centre clinical study that has to have ethics approval for each site. Ideally the informed consent and participant information documents are identical. In practice and particularly in Europe each local Ethics committee has their own set of requirements making a wholly harmonised set of forms virtually impossible. It does not need to be said that a 1 centre study is much less complex.

Another aspect of complexity is a lack of understanding of what the others in the consortium are doing or their particular expertise. If it seems like what the others are doing is ‘black box’ stuff, it’s hard to work with them to solve issues in a creative and joined up way.

How to apply lean collaboration meta-principles: If you are committed to transdisciplinarity then it follows that you should spend some time building a common understanding amongst consortium members. This may seem like an onerous task, but it will be of benefit when someone sees something you have completely missed because you are too much of an expert in the field. Iteration is also important here. By beginning with a first version and doing so quickly will help you to gain an understanding of what is minimally necessary to achieve your goal.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the experts there are few. Shunryu Suzuki

4. Homogeneous teams: The transdisciplinary nature of consortia makes team formation difficult. it is very much the case that a basic science researcher has a different perspective than that of the clinical researcher and they are both almost polar opposites of the engineer, or the computational modeler. Add in patients and some social scientists and you have a big potential for a team that talks around each other. It is not just about discipline. There are also multiple different personality types some more conducive to a collaborative effort than others. People who keep their thoughts to themselves, introverts are not helpful despite the fact that they are very analytical and have more insight than others. On the the other the person who has to be leading who demands the plan is his, the narcissist is also a threat to a consortium. The strength of a consortium is its breadth of expertise. Letting a narcissist take control means that the breadth of expertise present is meaningless as the weak viewpoint of one is dominating the leadership. Another important aspect is transparency and governance. Ideally the team works together and keeps everyone openly informed. In reality there are often one on one decision making and small groups who pull together to influence decision making. This effectively disenfranchises some of the consortium partners. If you are one of those partners you begin to wonder why you are dedicating your time and sharing your knowledge.

How to apply lean collaboration meta-principles: Aside from building teams that are purposefully transdisciplinary, transparency is of the utmost importance. Resisting the tendency to break into small teams is a way to maintain transparency. Also, if you are iterating early versions of what you are producing within working groups and beyond you are avoiding homogeneity.

conflict-noun_dialogue_1399705. Lack of conflict: Conflicts are inevitable. There will be any number of other sorts of conflict. Everyone will have an opinion about what to do about a problem. How much one person is not doing or is doing becomes and issue. One of the biggest areas of conflict is publications rights. Usually this is more of an issue later in the consortium, when if things have gone well you know each other well. Nonetheless there are consortia that right from the outset have heated arguments over the number of authors each publication should have. Journals for some fields of endeavour do not allow more than 3-4 authors a paper, while others allow dozens or even a hundred authors.

How to apply lean collaboration meta-principles: Communication has two parts an active and a passive. Active is speaking writing, demonstrating etc. and the passive is listening. An important facet of continual communication is listening to what is not being said. Having someone in meetings and conference calls whose job it is to facilitate the collaboration can really help to move the work along quickly. Smoldering conflicts hinder progress. Avoiding conflict has nothing to do with progressing your project. In over 130 work package years of experience I have never seen a conflict in a project that did not in the lead to a significant improvement in the amount of progress being made. Being proactive and coming up with a uniform policy a priori can really help to reduce hindrance arising from authorship disputes.

6. Ignorant bliss about intellectual property: Intellectual property is often written about as a being one of the biggest concerns. The fundamental fear is that by collaborating you dilute your intellectual property or even outright lose it to someone else. This fear is particularly true for the small to medium enterprises who have even been told by larger partners don’t even think about IP because we are going to take it all. Of course the assumption that underlies these fears is that even without the collaboration the research or development that leads to IP would have just as easily taken place. For some things this is certainly the case and you are probably better off not collaborating. However, a lot of IP would not ever be realised if it was not for a collaboration would not be realised.

What you also don’t want to have happen though is that by not taking about IP up front you end up with an intractable conflict when you go to implement the outcomes of your project. This can be particularly difficult since to a degree everyone contributes to what is being produced. As we move away from product to physical technology based outputs it becomes increasingly difficult to assign ownership.

How to apply lean collaboration meta principles:  The most relevant meta-principle is transparency. This begins early on in a project. What do the partners want to get out of the project. Shared vision is often also important. For example in the project eTRIKS it was decided earlier in the project that any software produced would be released under an open source license. That has made many of the IP discussions easier to have.

7. Top down ‘push’ resource management: A collaboration is not your own lab or department within a company. If people are not performing you have a lot less leverage and typically a lot less flexibility in bringing in new resource. What is often the case is that you don’t even know how much resource is truly being applied.

When one of your biggest interventions for projects that are behind is bringing in more resource, a consortium can be frustrating and downright scary. If you try to operate under a tight resource mindset you will often find yourself expending a lot of effort with little impact. Either you will alienate those who work on a team and just in time approach, or you will be told a number of the amount of resource being applied that is pure fiction.

Furthermore, consortia are usually put in place to deal with complex innovation projects that would otherwise not get done in isolation. One the characteristics of these types of projects is that you do not, not only, not know the outcome, you also often do not know what you have to do to get the desired outcome. You may have some high level plans or strategies but until you actually begin the work you cannot be certain if they will work or not. Often they do not. This makes resource planning difficult. You often have to rely on polyvalent individuals who can work towards a goal. These individuals are often not easy to find.

How to apply lean collaboration meta principles: A collaboration is more about ‘pull’ resource management. You have to pull people into helping to solve the problems that have arisen and advance the project. This is primarily done by have a strong shared vision. In U-BIOPRED the shared vision of integrated handprint biomarkers to reclassify sever asthma has undoubtedly inspired and motivated individuals to do more in the project. The project AirPROM has a similarly strong shared vision: a patient specific computational model of the lung. This has even lead to pulling in external resource. The shared vision is complemented by continual communication. Having groups of experts continually discuss issues that are blocking progress is very effective at getting people to help.

Here is an understatement for you. Consortia can be challenging. Yet there is a lot that can be done which can bring this powerful approach to bare on societal challenges. If you work in consortia, you probably have experienced other collaboration ‘sins’. Please list them out below in the comments. Even though the title and the image relate to the ‘seven deadly sins’ this list does not have to be limited to just seven.

Scott Wagers, MD is an expert in convergent approaches to science and innovation. Getting multiple disciplines and multiple stakeholders to work together and deliver on ambitious projects is challenging, but it is exactly what we achieved in projects like U-BIOPRED, AirPROM, COPD MAP, and eTRIKS. Finding ways to get groups to work together to achieve an exceptional level of creativity is what I am passionate about.

About The Author

Scott Wagers

Scott Wagers, MD is an expert in convergent approaches to science and innovation. Getting multiple disciplines and multiple stakeholders to work together and deliver on ambitious projects is challenging, but it is exactly what we achieved in projects like U-BIOPRED, AirPROM, COPD MAP, and eTRIKS. Finding ways to get groups to work together to achieve an exceptional level of creativity is what I am passionate about.

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