First, it takes time and effort to communicate effectively. Even just scheduling a conference call is many fold more difficult than within your own organization. You have to get multiple people to tell you their availability and there is almost never a day or time that fits everyone’s schedule
Second, in an alliance or consortium, any kind of planning or decision requires a dialogue. Dialogues take time and effort. Having to navigate the group dynamics and then integrate different perspectives from multiple disciplines and multiple stakeholders is not easy.
Third, the pace of progress can be slow. Alliance or consortium based projects tend to be ambitious and complex. Often just navigating the complexity of a multiple partner project takes time. This is aggravated by the fact that the alliance or consortium is a secondary priority for some of those involved.
You could do what most do, and just and accept the disadvantage of having to work with multiple partners as just the way it is. Or, you could transform that disadvantage into a strength.
Transforming a disadvantage into a strength
Phil Hansen is an artist who developed a severe tremor, painting pointillist pictures. He thought his art career was over. His points had become more like tadpoles.
Then a neurologist suggested that he should “embrace the shake”. He did. He then went on to create some stunning pieces of art.
It all started with transforming a disadvantage into strength. In fact, he now looks for other limitations and embraces them as part of his creative process.
“We first need to be limited before we can become limitless.”
In a similar fashion in order to transform the disadvantage of having to work with multiple partners in an alliance or consortium into a strength you must embrace that disadvantage.
Natural collaborative intelligence
Michael Nielsen in his book Reinventing Discovery illustrates the importance of engaging a diversity of perspectives by describing work that has been done to solve some of the most difficult math problems.
Tim Gowers, himself an accomplished mathematician, used a blog post to solve a math problem he could not solve on his own. He posted the problem and within 37 day the diverse group of contributors solved the problem. There were over 800 comments.
Nielsen attributes the success of this approach to the fact that when working in large diverse groups “fortuitous serendipity” happens as a matter of routine.
The chance of stumbling upon a new and creative solution increases because you have more people stumbling around in a coordinated fashion. Instead of everyone making the same errors, the group learns from each other’s mistakes.
Most major advancements are made by those on the periphery of a given field. This is why Joi Ito and Jeff Howe call diversity the ‘pixie dust’ of crowd sourcing. Keith Sawyer calls this type of diversity driven creativity ‘Group Genius’. ‘Group Genius’ is the pixie dust of jazz music and improv comedy.
A diverse group of experts in any field, who achieve Group Genius can achieve a level of creativity far beyond what anyone could imagine. Group Genius is helpful beyond forming new ideas. It can be used for solving problems as well.
When you are focused on proving that multi-stakeholder medical research consortia and alliances are the most efficient way to achieve step changes in medicine as I am, the difficult numerous problems and issues that arise can be very frustrating.
Mid way through the project U-BIOPRED I counted 34 active issues that were blocking progress. We instituted a project team that included all those who were active in the project and discussed the 34 issues on a weekly conference call. Within 6 months we only had 5 active issues. It was the diversity of input from those attending and the overall Group Genius of the project team that helped solve those issues.
It is really about having multiple minds that can consider different possibilities simultaneously.
It is not all that different from neural networks that drive artificial intelligence (AI). ‘Group genius’ however is part of what could be considered more of a of a ‘natural collaborative intelligence’.
Diversity of participation alone is not enough. You need a diversity of contribution.
A diverse group left alone will most likely be dominated by a few who are the most vocal. This is hardly better than working alone or in a small group.
Steve Jobs was famous for throwing people out of meetings who had nothing to contribute, but he may have been missing something.
In many instances, it was those who were the quietest who seemed to make the biggest contribution to solving the issues we faced in U-BIOPRED.
Often those who are quiet are not quiet because they are shy. They are quiet because they are actively listening to the discussion and quietly analyzing the options.
When you provide the space for those individuals to explain what they are thinking, you will often get a cogent analysis that takes into consideration multiple points of view.
Also, when those who have not been talking begin to talk, it gives those who have been dominating the discussion time to think. With luck, they will also listen to what is being said in their silence and come up with some new thoughts.
When you unleash this cascade of thought it often leads to lots of new ideas. Those ideas can be like wild horses. You need a way to corral them.
Unbridled discussions rarely lead to Group Genius. You need someone who is listening to the whole conversation and looking for ways to converge the wild ideas that are galloping around and synthesize them.
Plus, good ideas only add value if they are put into action. Someone needs to make sure that ideas are transformed into action.
You also need someone to help with the dark side of having to work with multiple partners.
Part of the reason that discussions are often dominated by one or two people is avoidance of conflict. We are wired to try not to offend. When you think what you are about to say will offend some one the natural reaction is not say it.
Conflicts are diversity at work. I have never seen a conflict in an alliance or consortium that did not lead to progress.
For that reason, you need someone who can provoke conflict and mold it into productive dissent.
How to make it happen
While there is a substantial risk that any alliance or consortium you are involved in will get mired in the disadvantage of having to deal with multiple partners. Don’t let that be your story.
Make the disadvantage of working with multiple partners your alliance or consortium’s biggest strength. Here are 6 concrete ways you can make that happen.
1. Establish continual communication
When you first bring a particularly difficult problem or a brilliant idea to a group you are likely to get a whole lot of silence or even a change in topic. This used to frustrate me.
But now, I have learned that people need time to think. This is especially true when they are presented with new ideas or problems.
In the heat of the moment you can only respond to a new idea or problem by mapping the idea or problem onto patterns of previous experience.
It is when you slow down that you can calmly think through an idea or problem. This is why you sometimes wake up, the solution to a problem you have been struggling with is clear. This is why continual communication is important.
You want to tap into that quiet time thinking of all your partners. If too much time elapses between meetings and calls it is easy to forget about that brilliant idea or perfect solution they had the morning after the last call or meeting.
There needs to be an optimal interval between presentation of a problem or idea and revisiting it. This is why shorter, more discussion focused meetings or conference calls that occur frequently are best.
There are some that will argue that emails and chat forums are forms of continual communication and you don’t need to have calls or meetings.
But talking is different than writing.
A facilitated dynamic dialogue is much better at achieving Group Genius than email or a forum that only a fraction of a group reads.
What you should do:
Have frequent discussion and action oriented meetings or conference calls.
2. Provide a structure.
If your idea of structure for a meeting or conference call is simply to ask: “What do you think we should do?” you are likely to end up wasting your time.
When you leave a meeting or conference call open, you are likely to get as many ideas as there are participants and everyone entrenched in defending their own ideas. The comedians of Monty Python’s Flying Circus learned this in their early days.
Instead you should provide a structure or a starting framework and then ask for input. Everyone then focuses on how to fit their ideas into the existing framework, instead of trying to defend their own idea.
In practice, the framework may be a draft of a document, an outline, or simply suggestion of a first solution to a problem. Even if it is totally wrong it will get everyone thinking.
The key is to task someone with coming up with that initial framework.
Michael Nielsen says that what makes crowd sourcing so effective for solving mathematical problems is that math has a set of agreed rules or ‘praxis’ for deciding when a mathematical proof is correct.
When you are working on complex research and innovation projects it is not often agreed upon a ‘praxis’. A starting framework builds a sort of ad hoc ‘praxis’ around which everyone can base their thinking.
In his post on the "Two things you should do after every meeting” Paul Axtell recalls a Chinese proverb: “The palest ink is better than the best memory”.
The notes or ‘minutes’ from a meeting are an excellent means of providing structure.
Making the short summary of the previous discussion on a certain topic visible during a discussion helps to jog people’s memory. This helps avoid the rehashing of the same discussion over and over again and can provide enough of a framework.
What you should do:
Create a ‘praxis’ by investing some thought into the format of your meetings or conference calls. Always have some framework or outline as the basis for any discussion.
3. Facilitate a diversity of contribution
You should make ‘space’ in discussions. There are different ways in which you can do that.
You can make it a point to specifically call on those who have been quiet. Some people need to be asked before they will bring their thoughts into in a discussion.
By creating ‘space’ for those who have not been talking, you also create ‘space’ for those who have been dominating a discussion. They also need time to slow down and think.
A group of like-minded people will have the same bias. They will all ‘know’ what is, and what is not possible. While outsiders suggest naive ideas, and ask obvious questions. In so doing they create yet a different kind of ‘space’.
Having to slow down to explain the basics to an outsider gives everyone else a chance to think. Plus, there are times where the problem you are discussing has its origin in errors in the basic assumptions that everyone from the field take for granted. However, having to respond to them is not a waste of time.
What should you do:
Make sure that your discussions are facilitated in such a way that they create ‘space’ to allow for a diversity of contribution.
4. Mold conflict into productive dissent
For a discussion to be as productive as possible, someone must listen to what is not being said.
Often true opinions are obscured because people are afraid of conflict. Even leaders try to steer discussions around conflict, but that is a mistake.
True leaders believe dissent is an obligation, because they know that dissent fuels creativity.
Dissent is not exactly conflict. There is an air of respect for the opposing party when you dissent. Dissent is in a way, conflict without the personal elements. Personal conflict is not productive.
William Issacs' points out that putting dialogues into a ‘container’ helps to provide the space for conflict to happen without getting personal.
What should you do:
Transform personal conflicts into energized debates. Create a culture of productive dissent. A direct probing question or a direct challenge can change the dynamic of a discussion from that of polite avoidance, to an energized discussion fueled by productive dissent.
5. Entrust problem solving to a diverse group
When faced with difficult problems in an alliance or consortium the tendency is to try and solve them in small groups.
I once witnessed a small group work for months with little or no progress in solving a problem. Only to have it solved in 15 minutes when it was brought to a larger group.
A person with a minor role in the project had a simple and straightforward solution to the problem. If the problem had been brought to the larger group right away a tremendous amount of effort would have been saved.
Structured well, even a large group can be much more efficient than a small group.
Group Genius and collaborative intelligence require that you expose as large a group of people to a problem as possible. There is also an additional benefit to widely socializing problems.
Increased engagement and enthusiasm.
Everyone likes to contribute. By widely socializing problems you give more people the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way which increases engagement and enthusiasm.
You cannot underestimate the value of widespread enthusiasm.
By their very nature, alliance and consortium projects are ambitious and full of problems that can dampen enthusiasm. As enthusiasm grows partners will invest increasingly more time and effort.
What you should do:
Always default to bringing the problem, idea, or result to the widest group possible. You will be surprised how rewarding it is.
6. Invest in the process of working in an alliance or consortium
It is difficult to lead and/or actively contribute to a project, facilitate the discussion, be a neutral moderator, and make sure that concrete progress is being made all at the same time.
For Issacs there must be a facilitator who: continually looks for “new forms of order”, “breakthrough creativity”, and “…the emerging opportunities that are present even in seeming chaos.”
Furthermore, the way alliances and consortia function is likely different to how your own group, team or department works.
It is also an advantage to have someone whose focus and expertise is broader and who is able to think about the process as a whole. He or she can then make sure concrete steps are being made to assure forward momentum and make recommendations on positioning your alliance or consortium in a broader context.
What you should do:
Appoint someone who can focus on the first 5 of the above concrete steps and help catalyse the transformation of the inherent weakness of your alliance or consortium into its biggest strength.
Maximizing the potential of alliances and consortia
Any alliance or consortium will be “somewhat productive”, but you should not be satisfied with that outcome.
There are too many important challenges in medicine to not do everything possible to maximise the potential of any alliance or consortium.
The best place to start is to reject the notion that working with multiple partners is a disadvantage.
By embracing the diversity of expertise and perspectives you have when working with multiple partners, you can transform any alliance or consortium into one of the most efficient ways to change the future of medicine.