“Collaboration” and “interdisciplinarity” are buzz words at the moment but working as part of a collaboration or leading a collaboration may be more difficult that you first think. Even more than usual, involved parties will have different perspectives, different expectations and different needs. You may not be able to solve all the issues at the beginning but if you think carefully about how you set up the collaboration it can help avoid some of these issues arising later.
How closely aligned your perspectives are will depend on several factors. For instance: How much involvement did each person have in writing the proposal? How much time has been spent discussing the aims of the project? How close are your research interests and expertise? It is important from the outset to generate both a shared understanding of the project objectives and a shared agreement on how those will be achieved. It seems obvious but very often collaborative ventures start without this being given enough time and different parties take different directions, making it difficult to pull it together at the end. If you wait too long to do this, everyone will have put in work towards their idea and it will be much more difficult to reach agreement.
Working in an interdisplinary team provides another layer of complexity to this and it is particularly important in this situation to generate a common language which you can use to explore the substance of the project. This may take some time and may involve exploring what different people mean by different words and concepts. However, this will be time well spent and will avoid confusion later on.
It is important to achieve shared clarity around expectations. These will include those factors mentioned above around project objectives and the approach to be taken. It will also include an agreement about what each person is going to contribute and by when. It is vital that everyone knows what the key milestones are in a project and who is responsible for delivering towards these and monitoring their achievement.
What does each contributor need from this project? Examples may include a certain number of publications (and it may be important where they appear on the author list), data for a future grant, a commercial product, input to public engagement activities, a poster to take to a conference…. The list is endless. The more you know about what each person needs from the project, the more the team can try to accommodate these different needs. Make sure that everyone contributes to this discussion rather than just the most vocal members of the team. This will avoid conflict at a later date and make the experience more satisfying to all involved.
How are members of the collaboration going to communicate with each other? This will depend on whether you are in the same institution or even the same country. Regular communication will be important to make sure you are all “on the same page” and it will ensure smooth running of the project. You may decide to keep in touch via regular written communication or you may agree to organise a periodic conference call. Different methods will work for different people and projects.
Communication is just one process that you will need to decide on. Others will include how you are going to make decisions, share data, write papers etc. Taking some time to think about these when the project starts can save a lot of time further down the line.
There may be others who can help you. For instance, Finance and HR will be able to advise you on good practice, Staff Development may be able to help you look at team processes and communication, IT may be able to suggest technology you can use to support your collaboration, and your Research Office may be able to give you tips and advice based on supporting other collaborations or may be able to help with project management if it is a large collaboration. Make sure you make use of everyone who can help.
If you have a think about the suggestions above, this will give you a good start. Make sure you also think about your specific project and come up with any potential issues/risks that you may come across and see if you can put anything into place to avoid these too.