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What the Brexit can teach us about multi-stakeholder research collaborations

What the Brexit can teach us about multi-stakeholder research collaborations

Multi-stakeholder research collaborations are an odd thing, and so is the European Union. They are both odd because they are not the ‘usual’ mode of operating.

Multi-stakeholder research collaborations and the EU are structures made up of components that are loosely bound together. This puts their success at risk. The risk is not that partners leave.

Even though the Brexit currently dominates our psyche, the EU has only lost 1 partner in 40 years. And if a partner leaves a multi-stakeholder research collaboration you can usually find a replacement. The risk is more insidious.

The risk is that partners can become disenchanted. You could look at the history of Britain’s involvement in the EU as that of a disenchanted partner. The UK did not adopt the euro and they often complain about being dictated to by the Brussels bureaucracy.

While disenchanted partners might remain in a collaboration they will contribute only the minimal amount of effort required. This is the problem.

It is a problem because most collaborative research projects or collaborative governing initiatives are ambitious. If you are going to meet expectations all partners have to be contributing at least fully.

Therefore, if you are coordinating a multi-stakeholder research collaboration, or just a partner you should do all that you can to mitigate the risk of collaboration partner disenchantment.

4 mistakes that result in collaboration partner disenchantment

1. Forgetting it is a collaboration

Working within an organisation or a government there is almost always a hierarchy. In a collaboration or ‘union’ the structure is more horizontal. It is in fact a collection of different hierarchies. This has important implications.

Within a hierarchy a degree of pull management (small)push management works. You have to do this or that. Or there are ‘expectations’ you have to meet. It is different in a collaboration. A collaboration is about pull management. Partners have to see that they are getting value out of of the collaboration at all times. This could be value for themselves or ‘bigger picture’ value.

So, it is not just do what you think is best. Plans, actions and solutions all have to balance the perspectives and goals of all partners. Sounds daunting.

How to avoid the mistake of forgetting you are in a collaboration

Treat your partners as if they are doing you a favor by being in the collaboration. Regardless of whether they are or not. Your stance should be one of respect.

You have to be constantly building the case as to why they should be contributing to the collaboration. Make sure that there is overlap of each partner’s own goals and objectives with those of the collaboration as a whole.

In a collaboration it is important to go for the ‘win/win’.

Doing so takes more effort. You have to look beyond apparent motivations and gain an understanding of  the bigger 'why' for each partner. Once you have done that it is easier to find where perspectives and goals overlap making synergy possible.

2. Failing to continually communicate the value of the collaboration

It is very easy to forget that others don’t necessarily see the value in a collaboration that you do. Working in and on the collaboration you begin to take it as a given that the collaboration has value.

A simple test to see if you have fallen into this rut is to see if you can express the value of the collaboration in a simple 2 sentence statement. If you can’t it means 1 of 2 things.

  1. You don’t have a clear shared vision for your project or at least clear enough messaging about that shared vision. It is not easy to clearly express the value of research.
  2. Your project is not adding value. One of the first research projects I was involved in as a medical student was part of a longstanding collaboration between a Phd and an MD. The wife of the Phd who worked in the lab as a technician used to say that her husband would be off somewhere purifying gnat wings if it was not for the MD focusing their work on research that was of value.

For the Brexit it was clear that the value of the EU was not clearly communicated. Perhaps the remain campaign did an alright job, but then it was too late. Being that the EU is a loose federation there should always be a continual effort to clearly communicate the value of the EU to all levels of society.

How to make sure you continually communicate the value of the collaboration

Make communicating about the value of the collaboration a priority. Always look for new ways to communicate that value. Go beyond just publishing results in journals. There is a lot of value in a collaboration that does not get translated into a research article.

Celebrate the successes of researchers in training, especially when they have benefitted from working in a multi-stakeholder setting.

Highlight just how ‘multi-stakeholder’ you collaboration is. If patients attended a meeting or contributed to the development of a protocol or a document that is newsworthy.

Pay attention to the efficiencies that are inherent to working together. Detail them in your collaboration newsletter. It is often difficult to come up with material to put into those newsletters, why not focus on the value of the collaboration.

3. Lack of transparency

When people have to guess what you are doing and why you are doing it they typically imagine the worst case scenario. Transparency is always helpful. There is however a more opaque type of transparency.

Opaque transparency develops when there is fear of conflict that results in a withholding of true opinions. Social decorum almost dictates that one should avoid conflicting with people you don’t know that well. Real opinions remain hidden.

In a collaboration such social decorum can lead to a magnification of an underlying problem. If you are hiding your true opinion the necessary conflicts won’t take place.

A more see through type of transparency is when you are willing to say what you truly think or feel about an issue. The friction of conflict is almost always required if you want to polish your ideas into something really innovative.

How to maintain transparency in your collaboration:

Include everyone. Seems simple but it is not.

It means there needs to be a balance between working on your own or in very small groups and engaging a wider group. There is real strength in having a structured discussion in a group of experts with diverse perspectives.

It is not uncommon to have a problem that is worked on for months and then instantaneously solved when it is finally discussed within a wider group. The one person who you had not been talking to says “Oh, that’s easy just do this.” Even if you don’t have that experience the ability to have your ideas for solutions to problems, or a new line of research vetted by experts is a luxury. Use it.

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4. Failure to show progress

Everyone is typically enthusiastic about new ideas. When it comes time to implement those ideas all you get is tumbleweeds rolling past your plans to deliver a truly transformative project.

It is only when you begin to show progress that people begin to show up again. It is almost funny to see at the end of a 5 year project people showing up just before the major deliveries are made.

The opposite is also true. If you don’t make progress those who were engaged will become disenchanted.

Perhaps what played the biggest role in the Brexit was more of a general frustration with bureaucracy and the resulting lack of progress. In the case of the Brexit the partner is not sticking around. Or are they?

How to avoid the perception that you are failing to make progress in the collaboration

Always make progress. It is very easy to get frustrated because the work is not progressing as quickly as you thought it would. The important thing to focus on is making some progress, even if it is minimal.

Sometimes a simple outline of the document the group needs to write or the a plan for further work is what is needed. Even if it is completely wrong you will at least motivate others to get moving but what you have proposed is so off base.

Most importantly deliver something concrete. Then sit back and watch as the collaborators begin to show up.

It is not about stumbling less, it is about stumbling more.

‘Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm'

- Winston Churchill

The Brexit does not mean the end of the EU. Similarly the disenchantment of one partner in a multi-stakeholder research collaboration won’t end the collaboration. Nonetheless collaboration partner disenchantment should be avoided for one simple reason.

Loss of enthusiasm.

Loss of enthusiasm can mean that for all your stumbling you end up with a multi-stakeholder research collaboration that is only moderately successful.

You cannot settle for that.

By emphasizing the principles of good collaboration you can fuel mutual enthusiasm. When there is mutual enthusiasm the opportunities to find synergies between partners increases. It is through such synergies that collaborations end up delivering even more than was expected.

The great thing about multi-stakeholder research collaborations is that they are typically paradigm shifting projects and being part of a collaboration that truly shifts a prevailing paradigm is fulfilling.

Don’t let partner disenchantment dampen enthusiasm. Dedicate yourself and your organisation to approaching your multi-stakeholder research collaborations differently.

Do what you can to avoid mistakes that heighten the risk of partner disenchantment so that you can go about the business of shifting paradigms.