Written by Donald Lush, Careers Consultant
Let’s tip this one on its head! Collaboration can too easily be seen as an obligation and a distraction, something that stops you working instead of making your research richer, more exciting and more rewarding.
So, start by thinking of yourself as valuable. Why? Because you are. As a research staff member you probably know more about your subject and research methods than anyone else. Think about what it is you have to offer – be specific and try to create a short and simple statement to summarise it. A book such as ‘What Colour Is Your Parachute?’ can really help here. Additionally, engaging in collaborations can be an excellent opportunity to enhance your career development and the scope of the impact of your research. Whether you are collaborating with academic colleagues or stakeholders in industry, collaboration can help you develop new knowledge and transferable skills and can promote your academic profile nationally and internationally. Academic collaborations can broaden the reach of your research to other disciplines and industry collaborations can lead to the application of your research in wider society, in turn strengthening its impact.
Successful collaboration is also a key ingredient in building strong teams. If you know what you’re about and can communicate it effectively you are much more likely to benefit from help from colleagues and much more likely to be able to help them. This facilitates teamwork in which everyone is able to play to their strengths and therefore makes the team more effective.
Fully collaborative teams achieve far more than one person can on their own. Collaboration across teams is also much more likely to lead to innovation, as fresh ideas from fresh perspectives are encouraged and developed.
Finally, a truly collaborative project is characterised by mutual respect, honesty and integrity. This means that team members are open to new ideas and tolerant of risk and even failure. Paradoxically, where risk and failure are permitted, the chances of it happening are reduced as honest and positive criticism strengthens the team’s thinking. The consequence is that new ideas blossom and energy is not wasted on blame or power struggles.
There is one potential downside – groupthink. This is where the group falls under the sway of one way of thinking and refuses all criticism. It can be very damaging to the team because it can’t absorb and act on information contrary to its established view. If you’re setting up a new collaboration make sure there is a structure that insists on giving dissent a voice and ensure that the devils advocates in the team are given space to share their thoughts but are not allowed to dominate.
For more on collaboration this is an excellent TED talk.