How IGNITION found an innovative approach to collaborate with its diverse team
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Finding innovative solutions goes beyond business as usual approaches, though the driving partner might lack the specific skills and expertise required. A way forward is to team up with other partners and search jointly for Solutions. Hence, many UIA projects engage with a wide range of Partners, but how can they collaborate effectively?
In the case of IGNITION, which aims to develop innovative financing models for delivering nature-based solutions for climate-resilience, 12 partners from city councils, universities, NGOs, agencies and a utility company collaborate under the lead of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). While the broad range of partners with their different knowledge, skills and creative ideas appears highly beneficial, this variety also poses some difficulties. Different partner locations, different organisational arrangements and cultures, and partners’ own working agendas can constrain communication and collaboration. This therefore makes effective communication harder to achieve than in projects with just a few partners.
I learned that the IGNTION partners tackle the collaboration challenges with a range of measures, in the form of meetings, email and other remote communication tools, and a regular internal bulletin. However, one inspiring element caught my particular attention - the co-located team. In the current crisis around COVID-19, this approach has to be put on ice, It is strongly missed, which show its high value for making progress in the project.
The co-located team at the leading Greater Manchester Combined Authority is not an invention of IGNITION but has already been developed during earlier activities between the GMCA and other partners, like the UK Environment Agency. It means that staff from partner organisations works directly together in one place. This can take the form of secondment or is organised rather informally as flexible hot desking for a couple of days per week or occasionally. Based on the positive experience of the past, the option of a co-located team was discussed early in IGNITION, though a formal decision was never taken. Instead, the idea was picked up by team members and developed organically starting with staying in the office before, after or in between meetings and extended from there. After one year into the project, Matt Ellis from the UK Environment Agency and Amanda Skeldon from Business in the Community are using this approach most as they are involved across different areas of the project. They are regularly around for 2-3 days per week. Together with key staff from the GMCA, they form the core team of IGNITION. Others, like colleagues from Salford City Council, drop in occasionally for a day once in a while.
All members of the co-located team that I talked to were very positive about the approach. Matt and Amanda are quite excited to work in this way; they perceive their place in GMCA as a pleasant environment to work in and enjoy the close teamwork. Information flows faster and easier when they can exchange spontaneously with others. Also, random ideas or other issues come up more easily in personal daily communication than through phone calls.
We do not need to wait for formal meetings and conventional communication methods or try to reach the colleagues by phone when requesting small pieces of Information.
New perspectives, creativity and better understanding
This information on the topic or on the work approach of other Partners is often useful in providing new perspectives, boosting creativity or simply increasing mutual understanding.
The short ping pong of information saves time by reaching a common understanding faster and limits misunderstandings, or as Matt puts it:
Sitting down together for a half-an-hour-talk can often solve the problem. Even formal meetings get shorter as we discuss several issues informally in advance.
Influx of new ideas
As co-located staff they enjoy the influx of new ideas - even from outside IGNITION - which can contribute directly or indirectly to the further development of the project. The team benefits, e.g., from the input of the Natural Course LIFE project, which has delivered mitigation measures in other parts of Greater Manchester. Lessons learned from this project – for example on the most effective way of engaging a specific stakeholder – can be shared easily with the IGNITION project team. Lessons learned from IGNITION can also be shared in return with the Natural Course project team.
On a personal level, the team members appreciate being able to gain new insights and knowledge from partner organisations and increase their own competencies. Matt and Amanda found also that being co-located allows them to better focus on a task, as the distraction from other work content in their own organisation is reduced. In addition, they feel more integrated with the IGNITION team as the co-location really helps to build trust between partners.
Building trust and understanding
Getting to know each other and building trust quickly is also an important advantage that Rachel Morrison points out. She is part of the GMCA staff but works closely with the co-located staff. As she is relatively new to the office, this setting has allowed her to pick up things much quicker and build close working relationships across the work packages in a short time. The personal contact enables her to understand not just the technical subjects, but also the working approach of other team members and the different setup and working approaches of their organisation, including its opportunities and limitations.
Better and easier management
For the lead partner, the Project Manager Michael Ramsey finds it easier to contact his team members, discuss and agree on certain tasks, find quick fixes before problems escalate and also stay on top of key processes. The same holds for Samuel Evans, who is the Project Lead. He points out that it is much easier to track progress, access the team and gain a better understanding on the development of different tasks. This saves valuable time and enables better management.
Mainstreaming knowledge and experience into partners' organisations
The co-located team also offers benefits beyond IGNITION. The approach enables better and more natural mainstreaming of information and results into the different partners’ organisations. This is of high importance for the broad application of the project’s results and for the long-term sustainability after the project will have ended.
Efficiency and other gainsin and beyond the project
Furthermore, specific knowledge and expertise are easily accessible for partners, even if that is not existing in their own organisation. Lengthy searches for information or finding external experts can be avoided. The UK Environment Agency (EA) has even conducted a study on the impacts of embedding staff and found valuable efficiency gains for the partners involved. The overall benefits are estimated to exceed costs by 100%. Beyond efficiency gains, impact on the quality of the developed solutions, like their viability or co-benefits are assumed but are hard to quantify.
Of course, the co-location approach also involves challenges and risks, which need to be seen and managed appropriately.
Some partners are not able or not keen to co-locate staff members. For example, as they may not see any advantages in it. Establishing a co-located team requires having a certain organisational culture in place that is open for new arrangements, allows for flexibility and shows trust in the arrangement and in their staff. This is not given at the same level among all partners. The integration of work delivered by these partners is then often harder to integrate and collaboration less intense, as these partners focus on their specific task rather than the whole project and how they could best contribute. The core team or work package lead needs to put in some extra efforts to engage these partners at a similar level.
Collaboration between the co-located team and the rest
Even if project partners are motivated and engaged, there is always the risk that a divide develops between the intensively and easily collaborating co-located staff, and the rest of the project team. ‘We need to constantly remind ourselves to bring other team members onto the same page’ underlines Amanda. The team are aware of this and try to tackle the risk through combining different collaboration methods. These include regular meetings of the whole team, regular work package meetings, and also regular meetings regarding specific topics. With intense internal communication, effective project management and active engagement, IGNITION can build trust and motivation amongst the partners, which will be evidenced through meetings being well-attended. For example, team members outside the co-located team are encouraged to meet informally before and after the meetings – a kind of mini co-location experience - which provides benefits including more effective, shorter meetings with partners having a greater understanding of the discussions. In addition, the project’s communication staff inform all team members regularly and conveniently via a positively received monthly bulletin, summarising the latest project-wide activities and results. This combination of the co-location approach with other communication and collaboration forms, is the key to ensuring successful partner collaboration.
Keeping the ties to the own Organisation
Often away from their original workplace, Matt and Amanda see some risk in losing ties to their own organisation.
We and our work are less visible to our colleagues at home.
Both are aware of this risk and try to put in extra efforts to connect with staff at their home organisation. They proactively attempt to build a stronger integration between IGNITION and processes in their own organisation. This is to make their work and its benefits visible and relevant to their colleagues, such as for the EA staff working on national regulations who are responsible for enabling (or limiting) the frameworks required to set up new funding models. This generates mutual benefits of the co-location approach for GMCA and the partners. Another issue that Amanda and Matt point to is the fact that, while being intensively involved in processes at GMCA and being able to influence discussions by their expertise, they are not actually GMCA staff and are therefore not in a position to take decisions such as on funding. This situation has not yet posed any problems to the IGNITION team however.
The extremely positive experience of working in a co-located team has shown that it is an effective collaboration approach for projects which involve many different partners which must collaborate closely, such as on innovative projects. There are challenges linked to this approach, but they can be tackled. Establishing a co-located team requires, however, openness and an organisational culture that is flexible, offers staff flexibility, a certain degree of autonomy and, in particular, trust. All involved IGNITION team members seemed to be very happy with this working approach and strongly convinced of its usefulness. Nevertheless, they constantly learn how to improve the approach and how best to combine it with other forms of collaboration. They longing for the end of restrictions due to COVID-19 to get finally back to co-location mode.