By Justin Bahr, November 1, 2017

Collaboration on a project will determine to a great deal the ultimate success of your project in terms of the utility assigned the outcome for the organization. That may seem like an obvious conclusion, but there are some important considerations in exactly how the collaboration is approached, implemented, and received.

First off, successful collaboration has at its core the formation of the right team which again may seem obvious, but in my experiences is not always given the proper consideration. It is more important to have the right people involved, and less important to have “everyone” involved.

For your team, the most important person to have included is the person who knows the realities of what it will take to implement the project from start to finish. In some cases, the person that is furthest from the process will over or underestimate timing, the dependencies in the set of tasks, and staff who are most appropriate for the project.

And that’s the easy part.

It’s much more difficult to manage who is a part of the process from your client’s team. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

At this point, it is important to be assertive, without being pushy. It may end up that you will simply have to deal with the team your client puts together (I will address that later), but you also have the opportunity to make sure that your client identifies a primary contact – someone you can deal with directly – who is empowered to make project-level decisions and will be able to communicate with the staff on their end. If your client has several staff members, from differing levels within the organization, you will need to plan accordingly, and that means adding additional days to your project timeline.

The most effective collaboration I’ve experienced has been working on a project that on the surface would seem to be the least effective because there are three different organizations involved, each with a different stake in the outcome. But what makes the collaboration effective is the composition of the teams. Each organization includes someone who has the ability to communicate with their staff what is involved but is also empowered to make decisions while still getting the right levels of buy-in from their organization. They can take the results of our discussions and bring that into their organizations in a way that expedites the process while ensuring that there is still a great deal of confidence in the outcome.

Less effective collaboration is most commonly associated with a team that is too big or does not have buy-in from senior staff. This is a delicate balance for some organizations where they risk getting the project mired in internal bureaucracy, or having senior staff who don’t see the value in the work because they were unable to weigh in. Just remember as you try to strike that balance is that the perceived utility of the work will determine in all likelihood whether you do another research project with the client.

If you have the opportunity to help guide the process of who is involved in the project, it is important to consider that you may need those involved to be available for upfront development meetings, to be responsive to requests for approvals and/or changes, allot time for periodic update meetings and help prioritize the focus of the project (and how that fits with internal strategies/initiatives). That time commitment is why it can be counterproductive to have the most senior level staff involved – they simply don’t have the ability to carve out that much time to your project, or in a way that will keep the project on schedule.

Additionally, having too many team members from one organization will bog down the process. As each person seeks to have input, it will have an impact on the amount of time needed to address each of the issues that are brought to the table, from the point of view of that person (versus having a single representative condense their feedback into a singular point of view that eliminates redundancies). This does not mean that having a diverse set of opinions should be discouraged. On the contrary, diverse opinions will help to uncover internal perspectives that will allow you to provide a better product, but a balance must be struck in order to continue to move forward.

One example of a less effective collaboration is when we were part of a team that was working with a large organization on their communications strategy. During the kick-off meetings, we realized that all decisions this company made were by committee. This is not necessarily a negative but is almost always a factor that can add time to the working process. As time went on, and the project was ultimately launched, it barely resembled the initial project we had envisioned and had laid out. Additionally, the research itself became more of an internal informational exercise versus a tool for the communications team.

What drove this result was that the end client had a team of internal customers that they would not only answer to, but included in any and all project communications. Thus no decisions were made until there was sign-off from all of these factions, which limited our ability to manage the overall process. We were unable to drive the research process which resulted in a product that was less effective for the communications team.

In summary, some of the lessons I have learned about collaboration:

  • Be an assertive advocate for your point of view, based on your experience and expertise, but avoid being pompous, patronizing, or dismissive of other people’s opinions.
  • Be a good listener, take copious notes and be confident in your abilities and approach.
  • Be realistic.
  • Over-communicate.
  • Push the client to address the issues that were impacting the study.
  • Reiterate the project goals on every occasion.
  • Be clear in what the output is going to be and importantly, how the output will change as the project changes.
  • Have more one-on-one conversations with the project lead(s) to avoid the impact of having others listening in (this allows the individual to process information and communicate that with their team without having to respond immediately).
  • Be more proactive on all levels of deliverables.

If you are a researcher or someone who is a project manager for a team that needs to collaborate, it is worth taking the upfront time to evaluate the team that has been put together and how in your opinion this team will function moving forward. By understanding who is involved, it will help you to form a plan on how to communicate with the team as well as putting together your timeline and ultimately, the deliverables.