In 2017, the Institute for Collaborative Working released the results of the Understanding The Psychology of Collaboration: What Makes an Effective Collaboration research project. They interviewed collaboration stakeholders at 107 companies to understand the organizational cultures and behaviors that foster successful research collaborations.
They found that while structure and planning was useful, the most significant predictor of research effectiveness was the skills and character of the people running them.
“People development emerged as a key antecedent of effective collaboration. This was mainly seen from a capability perspective, where the failure of a collaborative project was mainly underpinned by the lack of key resources and especially the skilled employees.”
I, for one, was very relieved. What makes a research collaboration successful is not money, influence, big-guns participants or even really high stakes. It’s the personality of the people involved. And frankly, you probably didn’t get into the field of research collaborations unless you had the right set of traits to start with (narcissistic, unreliable and sullen didn’t make the cut, by the way) . None of the traits are particularly hard to come, by and all of them are traits and skills you can foster with a set of behaviors that will likely build on your strengths.
How did they figure out that being successful in collaborations requires more than just being, “you know, a really kind of…collaborative person?”
The institute conducted surveys and in-depth interviews to identify 126 positive and negative personality attributes across 18 categories. They then had participants sort the traits by their importance and relevance to effectiveness in research collaborations.
Your research collaborations have much more chance of success if you are:
- A Good Communicator
- Open to sharing
- A Believer in Collaboration
- A Good Listener
- Behaving Ethically
- Demonstrating Leadership
Interestingly, other traits, like your charm, your confidence, and even your role in the organization, rank much lower in importance as attributes for effective collaborations.
A first glance at the list can evoke a response of, “well, duh.” How could collaborations be successful if one of the most important traits was being UNcreative or behaving UNethically? But it’s worth diving into the study a bit more to see how often what made these 10 attributes rise to the top was how rarely they are practiced in research collaborations.
Let’s take a look at the first trait in more detail: Strategically Minded.
Importantly, this does not mean “does nice Powerpoints” or “makes a damn fine Boston Consulting Group matrix.” Strategically minded means an ability to see the big picture, look beyond your own area of expertise, to have a long-term, multi-directional view. Most notably, “Without a thorough understanding of the strategic visions of their partners (emphasis mine), collaborations would find it really difficult to anticipate or reciprocate cooperative behavior.” So it’s about more than having a strategic vision for your own organization; it’s about understanding your collaborator’s goals.
The attributes most detrimental to research collaborations are correspondingly narrow and inwardly focussed. If you really want to screw up a research collaboration, stay focused on your short-term, personal agenda, keep your eyes on the bottom line, and keep tasks and tactics front-and-center.
Interviews in the study said things like: “(ineffective collaborators) are not prepared to be flexible at all. To an extent, that’s a common characteristic, they only consider their own bottom line at the expense of everything else, and looking at the immediacy, the immediate benefit.”
I’ll admit, I feel like I spend a lot of time in my job justifying the strategic value of the collaborations in our RCO to senior management. But that’s not the kind of “strategically-minded” we’re talking about here. And I shouldn’t be sweating the small stuff. When it comes to (not) being strategically-minded I’m guilty of:
- focussing more on the improbable risks, iron-clad warranties and legal details than the actual point of the research collaboration, which is developing a trusting relationship and learning some things
- looking more at milestones and quick wins than the long game
- doing what needs to be done in terms of tasks, but not checking in on partners’ big goals
And by the same token, I’d say that the least successful projects I’ve worked on have been with counterparts who similarly didn’t bother to understand my team’s strategic needs and vision.
Over the next articles we’ll look in detail at the next 9 traits from the study and consider how to specifically amp up skills in those areas. Since, as Oscar Wilde said: “Success is a science; if you have the conditions you get the result.”
Do you agree with the list?