Learning to collaborate while collaborating

By Rebecca Freeth

None of us was born knowing how to collaborate. We learn to collaborate. For most of us working as researchers or practitioners in the field of sustainability, collaboration is intrinsic to how we work. Which gives us endless opportunities to learn to collaborate while collaborating.

There’s ample evidence that projects designed for intensive collaboration, whether inter- or transdisciplinary, get watered down to “additive multidisciplinarity” (Roy et al., 2013: 745). This is at least in part due to failures to navigate collaboration challenges, from finding conceptual common ground to managing interpersonal tensions (Haider et al., 2017; Klein, 1996; Strober, 2011). Indeed, collaboration is “unabatedly demanding” (Defila and Di Giulio, 2018: 101). Even if you’re a researcher with considerable team experience, a new project can present novel and unexpected collaboration challenges. Learning to collaborate is life-long.

In the Leverage Points project, we also experienced some challenges. During my interviews with members of the team, I heard my colleagues say things like:

“At the beginning, I thought it was interesting that people had different viewpoints and backgrounds. Now … we’re having to decide which ones are going to be larger driving forces in our work.”

 “I find it exciting that people are so different and sometimes I overlook the fact that it might also be very difficult.”

Having to navigate quite fundamental differences – which may lead not only to confusion and misunderstanding, but to conflict – can create distinct discomfort (Strober, 2011). In our article “Learning to collaborate while collaborating: Advancing interdisciplinary sustainability research” (2019), Guido Caniglia and I propose treating team research as a magnificent opportunity to experience discomfort, allowing it to point out our next collaborating growth point. Horst (2013: 39) argues that in collaboration, “…a sense of discomfort often works as an alarm signal that calls for further investigation.” This aligns with experiential learning theories, which suggest that, under the right conditions, discomfort can prompt us to re-examine difficult experiences and learn from them (Kolb, 1984; Mezirow, 2009). Alternatively, if experiences of discomfort are not addressed, they can undermine both the enjoyment and the epistemic outcomes of collaborative research projects.

Or, using the language of leverage points for change (Meadows 2008) and the way we clustered these in our project (Abson et al. 2016), we can think about this as working with the deeper leverage points of intent and design.


The deepest source of leverage is intent. Being curious about my discomfort involves revisiting my paradigms about how collaboration should happen. If I catch myself thinking: this collaboration would work so much better if ‘they’ adopted my methods / thought more like me / had a more positive attitude (like me), then my assumptions deserves further exploration.

But it’s a lot to expect each of us, individually, to continuously excavate our assumptions. Another deep leverage point is design. This means that when a collaborative research project is first conceptualized, it is advantageous to think about how it can foster learning to collaborate.  While team members are working together, how can the underlying conditions of their work (project goals, the ways in which information flows and opportunities to self-organize) support them to reflect and learn, especially from moments of discomfort?

So what collaborative skills can we learn? The literature is already full of good ideas. In the table below, we have identified some of the key challenges and matched them to some of the good ideas we found.

Collaborative challenge Collaborative skill
1. Difficulties of finding common ground Cultivate both “methodological groundedness” and “epistemological agility” for a strong scientific base from which to explore other ways of knowing (Haider et al., 2017: 6)
2. High levels of complexity, uncertainty and conceptual ambiguity Build thinking skills for engaging with complexity (Cilliers, 2001).

Develop skills for dealing with uncertainty (Tauritz, 2012)

3.        Lack of skill to synthesize and integrate knowledge Build ability and experience in interdisciplinary literacy (Lotrecchiano et al., 2016)
4. Interpersonal tensions, exacerbated by disciplinary territoriality and competitiveness Hone “social sensitivity” – i.e. a combination of empathy, honesty, clarity, integrity and accountability (Cheruvelil et al., 2014: 33)
5. Lack of skill in managing interpersonal tensions Develop deliberation, negotiation and conflict resolution skills (Cheruvelil et al., 2014; Wiek et al., 2016)
6. Power asymmetries Learn to regard differences as meaningful (MacMynowski, 2007) and to harness them to the benefit of the collective (Carr et al., 2018)
7. Divergent and competing expectations, values and norms Develop research practices that include pausing and paying productive attention to tacit tensions, including those resulting from restrictive administrative and policy requirements (Reich and Reich, 2006)

A future step, which I look forward to taking with Guido and others, will be to design workshops and courses for developing and practicing these kinds of collaborative skills.

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