Imagine you are decorating a room. There is large sofa, and you have some throw pillows decorating it, but it looks a little bare, so you get some more. And some more. And some more. How many is too many? 5? 20? 65? Like cupcakes or party invitations, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. This applies to collaborative teams as well.
There exists a persistent belief that research outputs and outcomes will be that much better/greater/more impactful when teams are larger and more diverse. Presumably just because of volume: said outputs and outcomes will touch on or be accessible to more people because more disciplines. A variation on “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” aphorism, collaborative teams have been a mandatory requirement of funders and institutions alike for much of the past few decades. Like the emerging requirements for equity, diversity, and inclusion, teams that can describe a multiplicity of disciplines contributing to or potentially benefiting from the work are scored higher than those with just plain old excellence in a specific field or group of closely associated fields.
A concern about this is the assumption at the root of it: that more is necessarily better. This can lead potentially to the types of arranged matches and token inclusions that are the antithesis of collaboration – inclusion of a collaborator from a different discipline or institution driven by the requirement to appear multidisciplinary. This is not to say that meaningful and impactful multidisciplinary collaborations are not possible or real – these do happen all the time, to the great benefit of the work and the fields they touch on. However, I observe an increasing expectation that any proposed team can always be made better by just a few more names/disciplines/connections.
As a project manager, this can be problematic on a number of fronts, not the least being scope expansion, budget and resource distribution, governance, and key performance indicators.
Not always room for one more
From the initial project scope, things can expand (not just creep), as we make conscious decisions to include the additional work of the additional disciplines in ways that might jeopardize the original strategic objective of the work. The original project plan would have had some specific questions and objectives, and while the additional disciplines will hopefully enhance those, projects need to be cautious about expanding those too much. The balance of the benefit of addition versus the alteration of the original objectives need to be considered. This made more complicated by the aforementioned funder expectations. When the potential benefit becomes “we won’t get funded if we don’t include X”, that necessity can trump the overall project needs, and the resulting project and work can move far from the original heart and purpose of initial collaborative partners.
Like too little butter spread over bread
A few years ago, I worked on a proposal involving a national, multi-institutional, multidisciplinary team. The number of investigators proposed was 40, but that was a limit imposed only by the space allowed in the proposal format; during proposal development, upwards of 90 investigators were considered engaged collaborators. The total budget envelope (meaning the estimated total of all of the funding and expenses over the project period) was significant, running to nine-figures. However, a quick calculation showed that, when you subtracted for the in-kind or other matching funding contributions that were already spoken for by those contributors (as in, specifically allocated to allied activities, and not readily available for the new work proposed) and then divided the remaining amount by number of investigators (treating them all as equal, so no weighting for the leaders) and then divided again by the number of years proposed, the net funding was equivalent to a single graduate student for each investigator. While still impactful (especially for said graduate students), it was hard to get excited about.
This budget and resource distribution is problematic when trying to engage researchers across disciplines. Investigators have many demands on their time, and their resources and reputations are precious commodities. Therefore, they need to carefully consider contributing those collaborative ventures. Inevitably, this leads to, “what’s in it for me and my research program?” A legitimate but difficult question when trying to juggle already-stretched scope-time-cost-quality considerations of a project. The collaborator will have requirements to cover their costs for the work to be completed and contributed, their work will need to be incorporated to the timeline and critical path, and their engagement with project governance will be important when project decisions are needed from the leaders.
Too many conductors, not enough musicians
Large teams also present the problem of too many leaders. This has several variations of complication:
Consider a recent proposal: 69 applicants and co-applicants who have pledged a total of 432 hours PER WEEK of PI-time for the project. This is 432 hours per week IN ADDITION TO the project’s funded staff time to do the work. My mind reels at the thought of trying to organize a project teleconference …
What are we doing again?
Throughout project execution, and in many cases post-project closing, measuring key performance indicators (KPIs) and other metrics as a way of demonstrating progress are standard practice. KPIs should always be increasing (or decreasing, depending on the objective), and depend on reliable input from leaders and collaborators. A multiplicity of people whose input is needed for these can make the gathering and interpretation of such data problematic. Try as one might, getting this information and data from collaborators in a consistent and reproducible way can be a Sisyphean challenge. Each reporting period is starting over again in the explanations of what and how to collect and present the information, and draft submissions come in multi-variant formats, often with explanatory notes (some of the “dog ate my homework” flavour), and many rounds of “I decided this time to do it this way”. Across disciplines, institutions, and regions of the country and world, data points important for KPIs have almost endless variety, and so the larger and more diverse the team, the more complex and challenging the measurements become.
Not too much, not too little
In building collaborative teams, project managers and leaders need to carefully consider the depth and breadth of the collaborators included on the team. Think of it as the Goldilocks principle – not too few, and not too many, but just the right number to achieve the best project work and outputs within the scope-time-cost-quality balance.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.