Planning teamwork – 10 questions for a “collaboration pre-nup” before you start a project

The original version of this post first appeared on the Trellis blog. This is a revised version with some additions.

Last May, I attended was the 4-day Science of Team Science conference where the focus was on what we can learn about collaboration within science.

The opening workshop was a grounding in the fundamentals of team science – including discussing the pitfalls of team-based projects and how to communicate effectively when team members may come from diverse specialisms with their own sets of jargon and beliefs.

I particularly enjoyed Kara Hall’s 10 steps to consider when planning a team – which listed everything from assessing whether you have the technology in place to get your collaborative work done, to whether you have clearly outlined conflict resolution strategies if things go wrong.

Continue reading

Building interdisciplinary communities – what hurdles do we need to overcome?

The original version of this post first appeared on the Trellis blog.

Last summer I took part in a session at the ESOF16 conference on building interdisciplinary communities. ESOF – the EuroScience Open Forum – is a biennial conference focusing on various European science and science communication activities, with a mixture of different session formats.

In our session, one of the other presenters, Ismael Rafols, gave a good overview of some of the different barriers to successfully building community, which I’ve listed out below (taken directly from his slides).

1. Cognitive distance – Shared knowledge bases facilitate exchange while differences (e.g. in instruments, methods, theories) inhibit collaboration.

2. Geographical distance – physical distance matters as spatial co-location favours exchange of knowledge that is complex or difficult to transfer.

3. Organisational distance – membership and/or position in shared hierarchical structures influence coordination between actors

4. Regulatory or normative distance – norms, rules and values create incentive systems that influence how actors behave, and their priorities for interactions.

5. Social distance – exchange is aided by social relations that improve trust, communication and coordination.

Continue reading

Thinking about leadership – what values are key for a good leader?

Last week, I attended the Mindful Leadership Summit which was an interesting few days of talks and workshops about what it means to be a leader today. Topics discussed ranged from the challenges of leadership in startup scenarios, to the specific issues facing women. There were also sessions on local politics, inclusion and presence under pressure.

In addition to the main conference, I also attended a one-day workshop, “Finding the Space to Lead” – hosted by Janice Marturano, author of a book of the same name. During the various workshop exercises, we considered which characteristics define good leadership, converging on a definition of what makes a good leader (also in Janice’s book):

Leaders are able to:

  1. Connect – to themselves, to others, to the wider community
  2. Skilfully initiate or guide change by:

being responsive

being able to hold ambiguity

being collaborative

being respectful

being creative

It struck me that not only are these good leadership skills, but they’re also the skills of good community managers.

In the workshop, it was also emphasised that these two core skills are very deliberately in the order listed – it’s important to connect first before trying to implement change. Which means listening, learning and understanding the people and environment in which you’re working, before precociously heading for a prescribed solution.

What do you think? Are there any skills missing here – or any that often go unrecognised or are harder to develop?

Something wicked this way comes (repost)

Note: This post was originally published on the Nobel Week Dialogue blog in December 2013. I’m re-posting it here as an archive copy. It discusses the options for addressing particularly complex problems – such as the global energy challenge, which was the theme of last year’s Nobel Week Dialogue event. 

If you’re anything like me, pondering how we find workable solutions to complex issues can often result in feeling deflated, or worse, defeated. Big challenges such as tackling climate change or designing healthcare policies for new pandemics require policy makers to juggle seemingly impossible combinations of multiple factors. What’s the current state of our scientific knowledge and where should research focus in order to build on that? What technologies do we need to develop to benefit from that knowledge and translate it into useful tools? How do we make and debate policy decisions using the current best evidence? And how do we communicate with non-experts so they understand the changes that may be required while still recognizing the questions that still need resolving? It’s a challenging number of things to address all at once.

At the UK Conference for Science Journalism in 2012 I learned from keynote speaker, Jay Rosen, that there’s a term for these particularly difficult challenges: wicked problems. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber originally coined the phrase in 1973 when discussing the difficulties of social policy planning. They came up with a list of ten characteristics that define a wicked problem, which are well described here (an abridged version follows).

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation.
  2. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to measure or claim success with wicked problems because they bleed into one another.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not true or false…approaches to wicked problems should be tractable ways to improve a situation rather than solve it.
  4. There is no template to follow when tackling a wicked problem…Teams that approach wicked problems must literally make things up as they go along.
  5. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem.
  6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem.
  7. No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test because humans invented wicked problems and science exists to understand natural phenomena.
  8. Offering a “solution” to a wicked problem frequently is a “one shot” design effort because a significant intervention changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique.
  10. Designers attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions

Some of the factors that make wicked problems so difficult to address include: i) gaps or contradictions in our understanding; ii) the sheer number of different people affected by the problem and the diversity of opinions that they might bring to the discussion; iii) the cost of implementing a possible solution; and iv) the fact that the problem may not exist in isolation, but relates to other problems.

So is the future of energy a wicked problem? As we’ve seen from earlier posts on this blog, there’s certainly plenty there that resonates with the definitions above. There’s the link between energy use and climate change, a problem with wickedness of its own. There’s the question of what to do in the short term versus the long term, and then challenges of the costs and public perceptions of individual possible solutions, such as nuclear power. There are also questions of how we can improve current technologies.

Do we have any clues as to how we might start addressing the “wickedness”? A 2000 paper by Nancy Roberts proposed that there are three different strategies for discussing wicked problems: authoritative, competitive and collaborative. A solely authoritative approach seems to deny the possibility of fresh perspectives. A competitive approach may push on the accelerator to find solutions, but it can push away opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations and turn solution-finding into a sales and marketing exercise. Given the complexities of the questions that need resolution as well as increasing public access to information and online channels with which to discuss it, is a collaborative solution is the only realistic option?

It’s worth stressing that, while it may be idealistic, collaboration is hard – and as Roberts states: “Getting the ‘whole system in the room’ has its challenges…Figuring out what the system is, who the stakeholders are and how to select them, how many can be accommodated under one roof, what the agenda will be, and how to facilitate interactions all have been mentioned elsewhere as major issues to consider.”

Furthermore, this kind of collaborative thinking may require new communication skills that we’re not used to applying: “Skills of collaboration are limited, too, especially among people who work in a traditional bureaucracy with a strong hierarchy that limits participation and team-based approaches to problem solving and decision making. Collaboration requires practice; it is a learned skill. If members do not have these skills, they need to acquire them and that takes additional time and resources.”

Perhaps high profile events such as the Nobel Week Dialogue are a good way of airing current thinking in a public manner and inviting further conversations. But it will still require further effort to turn those conversations into collaborative solutions.

From interested, to invested to impactful – what’s needed to sustain a movement?

Last Wednesday, I attended the London satellite event for OpenCon, an event that took place in DC earlier in November and which brought together an international group of open advocates to discuss progress to date, and to consider how the movement might be strengthened (See blog posts by Ross Mounce and Jon Tennant for more about the DC event).

There’s certainly been an increasing mention of the importance of community recently (e.g. Cameron Neylon’s Open Access session at the wikimania conference –  and related blog post – as well as Peter Murray Rust’s closing slides on Wednesday). But it was a comment on Wednesday by Joe MacArthur of the Open Access Button that really helped me to frame where it fits. Joe asked, “how do we get from interested to invested to impactful [as a movement]?” Which prompted me to doodle the following:

From interested to invested to impactful - how do we increase momentum in the Open community? Image credit: author's own.

From interested to invested to impactful – how do we increase momentum in the Open community? Image credit: author’s own.


Interested – In order to invite more people to become involved with the open movement, we need to raise awareness of its benefits via case studies, ambassadors, advocacy projects and more. Peter Murray-Rust argues that we need more slogans, better “marketing”. Others have decided to write, and talk about their decisions about where to publish or for which organisations to do peer review. It’s these activities that may persuade others to ask questions and show interest in learning more. And it’s why I believe that it’s important to choose language and actions that are positive, open for deliberation, and don’t simply reinforce an echo chamber.

Invested – Moving from being interested in something to being invested in it requires an emotional commitment, and this where community plays a big part. I’ve spoken often of how a community is a group of people with shared interests, and that when you communicate well with the other people that you’ve come into contact with, you feel like you belong.  Belonging means you’ll go the extra mile to get things done; to work with people you like to strive towards goals that you share. This is where events like OpenCon and the OpenKnowledge Festival are important for strengthening the existing community. They help to form new connections among community members who’ve not yet met, they strengthen friendships among those who already know each other, and they help to convert interested attendees into future, active members.

However, a less rallying cry needs to be underlined here too: Peter Murray-Rust reminded everyone in the conclusion to his talk on Wednesday that the goal of building a community invested in an open future is not to sacrifice martyrs for a cause. Everyone has his/her own commitments, responsibilities and career concerns. And so the amount of caution to show is something that individuals need to make a personal judgment about – not to feel peer pressured into.

Impactful – So what are the next steps to build upon that thriving sense of community? What is needed to make an impact? This is where infrastructure starts to really matter. By infrastructure, I’m referring to things that support the growth of the community and its goals (rather than solutions that tackle the implementation of open methodologies per se). These may include:

i) Clear communication channels – a webpage, wiki, blog, mailing list, online group or whatever solutions work – so that everyone in the open community can find out what’s going on and coordinate new activities in such a way that knowledge of how to do so is shared. If a friend or colleague asked how they could find out more about the open community and get involved, where would you point them so that they could find out more?

Figured out a successful format for a meetup? Share it with the community! Figured out the 10 most common questions people always ask you about Open Access? Create a freely available doc/wiki page that anyone can reuse and put it somewhere easy to find. One of the outputs that came out of Wednesday’s event was the creation of a collaborative open glossary of terms and resources.

This is also why live-streaming (and archiving) of sessions from meetings matters, as well as creating Storifys of tweets of important discussions, or blogging ideas. Remember what it’s like to be the one who can’t make it and be generous with your communications. These records of discussions and events also serve to feed back into the beginning of this three-tier process – to open up the conversations and enable more people to show interest in them.

ii) Specific goals – As a community becomes a bit more structured, then individual members may set some more specific goals. One of the most useful sessions for me at Wednesday’s event was when we worked in small groups to envisage what an Open Access publishing future might look like. It helped us to identify the current economic, technological and social barriers, and to start breaking them down into smaller challenges to address.

Setting goals also provides opportunities to celebrate when they’re reached, or to do some reflecting when they end up being more difficult than anticipated. Without benchmarks, it’s not always easy know whether you’ve made an impact.

iii) Extended reach – Finally, good infrastructure let’s you extend your reach. Got a model for a meetup in the US? Now it can be replicated in Australia or the UK. Ran a campaign in the UK? How about trying something similar in the US? Extended reach once again feeds back to the beginning of this process and helps more people to find out about the open movement.

Big thank you to Joe for the inspirational phrase, and also to Jon Tennant who remixed my doodles into the much prettier diagram shown below.

Interested to invested to impactful - remixed notes Image credit: Jon Tennant.

Interested to invested to impactful – remixed notes Image credit: Jon Tennant.



The road is long: On the importance of infrastructure – from scholarly comms to sci comm

On Monday, I tuned in via live-stream to an interesting keynote by Geoff Bilder, Director of Strategic Initiatives at CrossRef, who talked about the importance of scholarly cyber-infrastructure (video archive here). Bilder was speaking at Shaking it up – a one day workshop in Boston to discuss “the changing state of the research ecosystem”.

Bilder started by lamenting the lack of importance placed on infrastructure, which is often seen as “unsexy” and goes unnoticed.

It can also be seen as an afterthought in many projects, or regarded as outside of the project’s scope:

Bilder then proceeded to consider the challenges of implementing centralised infrastructure, specifically mentioning issues of trust:

Wishlist of requirements for scholarly web infrastructure

So what would be the ideal founding principles of new infrastructure? Bilder outlined the following:

1) It should transcend disciplinary silos, geography, institutions

2) There should be non-discriminatory membership of the organisation.

3) The organisation should be non-lobbying – individual members can lobby, but don’t let organisation become involved with things that may become “mission creep”.

4) The organisation should be financially sustainable – and preferably create a surplus.

5) The organisation should make money from providing services not data.

6) And finally, as built-in insurance against the organisation “going evil”, the software used should be open source and information deposited as open data so that the entire system could be reproduced elsewhere, if necessary.

From scholarly comms to a science of scicomm

While this event was clearly focused on the scholarly web i.e. sharing academic research data, infrastructure is also something that’s been mentioned with respect to science communication more broadly. Specifically, Bilder’s talk brought to mind a post by Brooke Smith of COMPASS, who earlier this year argued that we need to construct “a metro for science communication“. More recently, Alice Bell has also underlined the need for science communication infrastructure.

So how relevant is Bilder’s list to the scicomm infrastructure discussions? In terms of transcending silos, there have been various conversations about sharing knowledge from different disciplines such as sociology, marketing and the digital humanities. This information exchange has been loosely termed “the science of science communication” and formed the theme for a couple of Sackler symposia held in Washington DC in 2012 and 2013. However, there’s no centralised infrastructure to facilitate that kind of information exchange on an ongoing basis nor, as far as I know, a firm set of new collaborations formed as a result of those meetings.

Have we even reached the point of widely acknowledging that such infrastructure is necessary? Or are we better off relying on smaller personal networks to seed the adoption of new norms via an ongoing process of “refining our craft” – as Dan Kahan outlined recently, using journalism as a specific example.

If creating infrastructure to support the science of science communication is a goal, perhaps it would be most realistic to start by creating a simple, (mostly online) meeting place where people from these different fields can exchange ideas and form new connections, gradually testing out the benefits of working together (rather as Liz Neeley outlines in the latter half of her post here). Maybe then we can scale to considering case studies of successful projects that might be replicated elsewhere in similar scenarios, and then move towards building a larger set of best practice resources. Something more akin to the “applied science of science communication” that John Timmer discussed last yearwhere we are eventually able to translate tested ideas into standard practice.

(Of course, this skips some of the other items on Bilder’s list – such as membership questions and funding models –  things that others have already been pondering).



Event formats: List of science tweetups

When I was putting together my post on networking formats – which includes tweetups – I asked twitter for an update about which science tweetups currently exist around the world. Given there are now so many of them, I thought they deserved their own list. Happy to add or correct anything I’ve missed.

Note: tweetups are spontaneously organised by scientists and science communicators who want to meet up informally with others. There aren’t usually presentations or any set programme. Everyone’s welcome to attend – just show up and say hello!

If you don’t see one for your city, starting one is as easy as creating the new hashtag (city+scitweetup) and tweeting to see if anyone else is interested. Likewise, if there hasn’t been an event in your town for a while, why not contact the organisers below and offer to help organise one?




 Other science tweetups