Saturday 9 April 2016

The Art of the New Collaboration

I love working with other people. It keeps me connected to a wide range of topics and drives me to push my work in ways I would never other think to do. I've had many wonderful conversations with people over the years in which we've thrown around ideas for collaborative projects. Often, however, these simply never get off the ground and I've struggled for years to figure out a way to turn good ideas into genuine collaborations. 

I have two new collaborations on the go right now and these are finally working, so I thought I'd write down what I think I finally did right that got these moving. I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas about how to start new collaborations; I suspect there are many scientists out there, young and old, who would be very interested in what we think works.

My main thought is this. A new collaboration is, by definition, a new project that brings together the skills and resources of at least two groups. These two groups will know their stuff, but not necessarily the others, and that means there's work to be done bringing people up to speed. In addition, each group will have existing interests and projects, and that means finding a way to implement some new, probably unfunded work using what you have to hand without interfering with the existing work. 

My current solution that seems to be working: choose ONE simple, easy to implement project and work it through to completion. 

The project should be

  • simple: do not try to change the world just yet
  • an example of the kind of work you want to do: it should be a good exemplar of what you see the collaboration as doing in the future
  • something everyone can contribute to: this gets all partners thinking and working and invested, and it gives everyone clearly defined roles
  • something you came up with specifically for this group: you need something tailored, rather than just getting people connected to an existing project. This gets everyone invested.
  • contained: the project should have a single output as it's goal (one paper, or something equivalent)
  • have one person in charge of getting it done: you cannot spread this responsibility out, someone has to be the person coordinating draft papers, getting data and results from others, etc
The end result is a shake-down cruise of the new team working together, and, if everything works, at least one output everyone can benefit from. It's like piloting your study before you commit to the whole thing; you work out bugs, figure out what you need to work together (in terms of resources but also just in terms of how to best communicate, etc) and you come out with a useful piece of work and all the ideas for the next thing that always fall out of this kind of work.

I have just done this with a very cool affordances project which I will blog the hell out of when it's published. The project idea grew out of a talk I gave 18 months ago, and the result is a proof-of-concept paper I've just submitted this week plus many, many ideas for grants and future papers (all of which I have firmly kept on the back-burner until this first thing was done; don't get distracted by cool spin-offs, finish the first thing then do the cool thing next!). The group is now up and running, keen to stay working together, and I'm going to get into grant writing in the summer to take the project forward. That grant, by the way, is helped by the fact that we will have a concrete example of the programme to point to (the paper); taking the project to completion without distractions is a win on lots of fronts.

I'm applying this strategy to my Virtual Reality Research Cluster (so far so good; we've learned a lot of absolutely vital practical information about the logistics of behavioural studies in VR) and to another project that's much earlier in development and that has, until I started applying this approach on purpose, been languishing a bit (lots of fun meetings and good ideas but no activity). I'm hoping getting firm about picking just one simple thing to just do will get us moving properly. 

I'd love to hear your opinions and your own strategies for getting new collaborations up and running. Comment below, or tweet us with your stories!


  1. Dude, I think you just defined Minimal Viable Product for research collaboration!

  2. Also, like the design folks say "A prototype is worth a thousand meetings"

  3. I wondered if you had contemplated collaberating with product/industrial designers. As an industrial designer myself, I find a lot of what you say resonates with my own research. Particularly how people interact with new products. focusing on the connotations and denotations of the aesthetic as well as the usibility when first being introduced to a tactile relationship with the product.

    1. It comes up now and then; we chat to people like Andrew Hinton (we warped his mind as he wrote his book :), UX people. The ecological approach has, in theory, a lot to offer design etc - hell, Donald Norman stole affordances from Gibson! (Gibson did them better though!)

      Always keen to chat, though, look for things to do.