Why it is important to structure your research consortium interactions like an ongoing cocktail party

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Everyone always says that in most meetings and conferences, they find the interactions during the breaks, over drinks, and at dinner much more useful than the formal presentations. 

Most often, people still talk about science during those breaks. 

Why then are the side conversations more useful? What is the difference? 

The answers to these questions were not clear to me until I began to think about the different ways partners in a research consortium interact. 

Not all consortia interact in the same way

There are two main ways that I have seen research consortia interact:

  1. Low interaction consortia where you might meet every 3 months or have a few workshops a year
  2. Highly interactive consortia that have up 15 meetings a month. 

Your immediate reaction may be that you do not have the time for even a few extra meetings a year, let alone 15 meetings a month. 

Open innovation

You have probably heard about or taken part in open innovation challenges.

Open innovation challenges are a process where a company has a specific innovation they want to achieve or a problem they need to solve, and instead of working on it internally they put it out to the public. 

The beauty of this approach is that you get access to a broad array of expertise. 

Within the group who respond, there will be some who offer elegant ideas that would never have been generated by those who are domain experts. 

Clay Shirky describes this as accessing the 'long tail.' The concept is that when you ask for solutions to a broad array of people, 80% of the solutions will be contributed by 20% of the responders. 

Thos 20% of the responders are the experts.

Real breakthroughs often come from the non-experts or people from adjacent fields.

The best example of how this works is that some math problems have only been solved by posting them on a forum where non-professional mathematicians can respond. 

Proximity to a problem can be a sort of blindness.

Shirky argues that in most organisations are developed, those 20% that produce the most outputs.

Innovation will improve if you can find a way to build the system that you also can tap into the 'long tail' of responders. 

Highly interactive consortia and the 'long tail'

Highly interactive consortia are a system that helps you take advantage of the long tail. 

I see examples of this weekly, if not daily.

When we have online consortium meetings, it is invariably a diverse group working on different aspects of the project.

Someone will have a problem. It could be something like not being able to get a specific cell line to grow. 

Often the suggestion for how to solve that problem comes from someone who is not even working on the field anymore. 

Those type of suggestions often save not just days, but months of effort. 

When you work in a low interaction consortium that is only meeting every three months, these types of interactions are much less frequent. 

They do occur.

They occur only after the formal sessions.

There is a likely reason for this. 

When you have not met for 3 months, there is a lot to go over. This means you revert to the typical meeting format - slides followed by a couple of disconnected questions.  

During the breaks and in the evenings, you have the chance to ask more than just one question. There can be a back and forth. It is a dialogue. 

When you meet often, it is much easier to move into a dialogue.

You know and understand what people are doing.

You trust them more, and you have had time to think about the problems they are facing.  

Solutions to problems often come to us when we are not actively thinking about the problem and are relaxed.

If you have to wait 3 months before you have a chance to talk about the problem again, you are likely to forget about your insightful solution. 

More, and more meetings, please

Every consortium we start out with there is a lot of moaning and groaning about the meeting schedule. Then 6 months later everyone starts to ask for more meetings. 

I am convinced that this happens because when you have it right, and you meet enough, most, if not all, meetings in a highly interactive consortium end up being much more like those great side conversations you have at conferences and cocktail parties. 

It's more than just chit, chat. 

Because of the problem-solving power of having a dialogue with a diverse group, you can be much more confident that you and your partners in a highly interactive consortium can tackle even the most ambitious and complex projects. 

So, if you want to make a real difference, develop or get involved in a consortium and take the time to interact a lot.

Scott Wagers

"The Consortium Whisperer" Physician and researcher who has spent the last 12 years engaged in developing biomedical R&D consortia, as well as designing and supporting the delivery of consortium based projects.

No matter who you are, you can, and you should innovate through consortia. They are the only way to make a big difference to the future of medicine. Want to find out how? Get in touch.