Rules For Collaboration

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

Collaboration, if done well, can add jet fuel to your academic career. The long and the short of it is collaboration can open up opportunities to collect more data for a project, analyze data in innovative ways, publish more articles over the course of your career, and avoid burnout because you won’t be doing all the heavy lifting.

While that sounds lovely on the face of it, you don’t want to start collaborating without setting some ground rules with your work colleagues. If you remember group projects from elementary school, you know team activities can go awry really quickly. Now that we’re adults, we’re going to do a lot better job of working as a team by laying down some ground rules to make sure everyone does their part and does it well.

If you’re an out-of-the-box thinker, the thought “Don’t rules stifle creativity?” may have crossed your mind. Well, yes and no.

Rules stifle creativity when they dictate how a person should communicate and what a person’s ideas should be. You might be surprised I’m bringing this up, but let’s be real. Academic hazing and silencing are more common in the academy than we’d like to admit. If a group silences an individual, they will try to convince them it’s just the culture of the group or “the way things are.” It’s neither of those things. It’s just plain toxic. If you’re in a group that stifles your method of communication or that doesn’t seriously consider your perspective, questions, and solutions to issues, I encourage you to reconsider why you are in that group and whether the group is helping you grow as a scholar. Then get out of there to find a better team to work with. You deserve more respect than what you are getting, my friend.

When you’re in a good group of people who can hear your ideas, you can hear theirs and your synergies to create even better ideas, collaboration rules serve as a contract between all the team members. Before you start collecting data or writing a word, determine who will be the first and second authors before the writing begins to clear up confusion post writing. Then have a candid conversation to hash out how each person works, what each person’s strengths are, and how you plan to use each person’s strengths in the project. Once you’ve had that open conversation about personal strengths, you can discuss your team goals, what your knowledge gaps are, and how you plan to close those gaps. Always make sure you write everything down on a shared Google document or Excel sheet. You can also use project management software to help you keep track of everything you have discussed.

Once you’ve parsed out who is good at what, team goals, and knowledge gaps, you can delegate tasks based on individual strengths. Break the project down into smaller sections and steps to help avoid overwhelm, if need be. Then set concrete deadlines that work for everyone. You can use the deadline strategy I described in the blog post on creating realistic deadlines if you need to figure out how quickly each person works.

In my opinion, the most important thing about task delegation is setting up systems of accountability for each task. For example, if two people are going to write the literature review of the article, should they co-create an annotated bibliography? What will be the format for the bibliography? How many entries should each person do? What is the due date? Will they give the group a synopsis of their bibliography on that due date? Hashing out these details might seem a bit didactic at first, but having clear parameters will make it easier for each team member to meet team expectations.

Now that you’re working, here are some key things to keep in mind:

  1. Don't step on toes. If you’re going to do a job that has been assigned to someone else, why are you working with them?

  2. Meet deadlines or be cut from the project. Work on Google Docs or another doc sharing app to stay abreast of each other's work.

  3. Keep meetings brief and focused on the project. I find the best way to do this is to share information at least two days before the meeting, so team members can read everything, then discuss questions, concerns, and ideas at the meeting.

  4. Make sure the lines of communication stay open and comfortable for everyone who is involved.

And there you have it, some simple guidelines for working in groups. If your team developed good guidelines that I may have missed, please share them with our Facebook community. Thank you for sharing with us!

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