Building Collaborations to Solve Complex Problems

Want to solve a problem? Work together. That’s the advice of New Connections alumna Dr. Melody Goodman, who has relied on cross-disciplinary collaborations to address the complicated problems we face today, such as health disparities in urban areas, one of her areas of study. When Dr. Goodman published her first book, Public Health Research Methods for Partnerships and Practice, in 2017, she enlisted the expertise of her fellow New Connections scholars to show how researchers can work with community stakeholders to address health disparities.

Finding solutions to such issues requires a range of knowledge and experience to come at a problem from many angles. New Connections nurtured an environment in which researchers from underrepresented backgrounds could collaborate across fields to help build a Culture of Health –translating the research of many academics into practical solutions for addressing many health challenges.   

How can you bring together a group that can rise to the challenge? Dr. Goodman suggests the following strategies to build and maintain collaborations to get results.

Forming Your Collaboration

  • Finding the right team members is an essential early step. New Connections scholars like Dr. Goodman had access to a vast network of potential collaborators, as well as opportunities to connect with them at New Connections professional development events. Dr. Goodman points out that flattery goes a long way – if you admire someone’s work, tell them! That can start a conversation about collaborating.
  • Not everyone will be a fit for your collaboration. For example, someone may have the substance you need, but a style that doesn’t work with yours. Always consider the big picture before signing anyone on, such as personality traits or differing work styles. Dr. Goodman also notes that senior-level people might be appealing as collaborators, but they are often busy. Finding collaborators at a similar level as yourself can be beneficial, so you can learn equally from each other, what Dr. Goodman refers to as “experiential learning.”
  • The collaboration needs a leader who can delegate tasks based on team members’ expertise and interests. If someone is assigned a task they find boring or confusing, it may take them longer to complete, or they may not do it at all, putting the collaboration’s success in danger. Dr. Goodman noted that as a co-editor, she made sure that contributors submitted drafts on time; then she reviewed the drafts and provided feedback. She also explained that she and her co-editor divided their editing responsibilities according to their areas of expertise, a good way to ensure the content will be as strong as possible.
  • Make sure everyone receives appropriate credit for the final product. When Dr. Goodman published her book, she shared co-editor credit with Dr. Vetta Sanders Thompson, but all contributors were given credit within the book for the chapters they wrote. This policy also holds true for the work of non-academic contributors to research. 

Setting Expectations and Tracking Progress

  • Team members should be aware of what is expected from them, as well as what they can expect in return. Dr. Goodman notes that academics usually don’t get paid for their work but consultants do, so make sure everyone knows whether they can expect financial compensation. Transparency is essential.
  • A written agreement is ideal (although not required and rarely used), as well as a discussion upfront about expectations about what collaborators will do and when. Revisit this conversation frequently throughout your collaboration to assess current circumstances, like changing workloads, proportion contributed to the work, and adjust as necessary.  
  • When you’re starting a collaboration, particularly for a grant or an external funder, a detailed task list can help keep your team on track. Using a spreadsheet that you can update continuously and refer to in meetings is one way to stay abreast of your team’s progress.
  • Dr. Goodman found that regular check-ins provide an opportunity for team members to talk about challenges or get support for their tasks. These check-ins don’t have to be in person, though; conference calls and video chats are handy when team members are spread geographically. Web meetings are a great way to ensure people pay attention and don’t multi-task. You can supplement your virtual meetings with in-person ones at conferences, or when team members are in each other’s towns. New Connections scholars considered the annual Symposium, Research & Coaching Clinic, and regional meetings to be good networking opportunities to chat with potential collaborators. Seeking other similar conferences attended by researchers working on related topics could provide another way to meet other scholars for collaboration.

A successful collaboration depends on the team aiming for one goal and understanding everyone’s roles. Make sure to communicate often with your collaborators so you can all stay on the same page. Dr. Goodman said it is particularly important to address challenges when they are small and seem minor, so you can keep them from becoming major issues that can derail your project. Above all, be flexible, get creative about solving problems, and enjoy learning from other researchers – like fellow New Connections alumni – who have a lot to offer!