9 January 2017

Messy collaboration

How we ensure that diversity flourishes in collaborations and partnerships?

What Works Scotland co-director Ken Gibb reflects on the argument of applied economist Tim Hartford in his new book on  creativity and resilience.


In What Works Scotland, two of the most used words in our lexicon are partnership and collaboration.

A core working model for the team has been collaborative action research (CAR) and while it has been harder to identify the added-value in terms of partnership outcomes, we are clear that collaboration is essential to making progress with Christie and with public service reform.

This approach has been the vehicle to support change in the way local areas use evidence to make decisions about public service reform. Widely used in sectors like education and nursing, CAR has been tried in public policy partnerships in England, but it has never before been central to complex multi-agency partnerships.

Collaborative work by What Works Scotland runs throughout our projects and has for example involved developing community profiles in West Dunbartonshire's 17 neighbourhoods and, in Glasgow is developing an all-encompassing theory of change to inform an evaluability assessment of the city’s Thriving Places. Underlying all of this is the important of collaboration as a process and mechanism to support the embedding of the effective use of evidence and seeking to facilitate changed behavior through collaborative practices.

It is against this background that I was struck by Messy, the new book by Tim Hartford on creativity and resilience (Published by Little Brown, 2016). Hartford is an applied economist with a regular column on the FT (the 'undercover economist') and is also host of Radio 4's More or Less. He has written several very accessible but always interesting books in recent years. Hartford writes in a very engaging way, drawing on personal narratives, biographies of creative people and also brings innovative research in psychology, economic and other disciplines to life in order to build a telling argument.

Hartford has a key chapter in the book on collaboration. He distinguishes the bonding capital of the 2000 Great Britain rowing eight who locked themselves away in a relentless regime to work out their (successful) way to gold, versus the many forms of bridging capital where people linked up in new, often untidy, collaborations to do great things, as exemplified by the mathematician Paul Erdos who worked across disciplines with 500 different collaborators across his long career. Of course, both forms of capital are important to collaboration but we should not underestimate the value of bridging different stakeholders. Hartford makes the nice point that a successful tennis player will not get much extra out of a third or fourth coach but all the difference might be made by a first conditioning expert. Similarly, one economist or sociologist may make all the difference to a group of architects or planners.

Tim Hartford argues for cognitive diversity not just across disciplines but more generally within collaborations and points to the way successful computer games teams have brought together different sorts of sub teams into what are called 'structural folds' – short-term dynamic but creatively tense arrangements of multiple teams, where within each sub team there are high degrees of trust and loyalty. For the life of the project these different groups manage to work together effectively to construct highly successful new computer games. In the end, cognitive diversity overcomes groupthink.

How do we ensure that this diversity is allowed to flourish in a given collaboration? 


First of all, we need to recognize the barriers to be overcome. Hartford points to research that shows the tendency of people towards homophily: in large universities and other institutions we tend to coalesce with like-minded people; in our reading of papers and watching political news, we tend to ignore the ever-increasing choice we have and instead stick with what we agree with; and, online, the Facebook and Twitter operating systems are in-built to reinforce and retweet comment, ideas and arguments we already hold.

He suggests four lessons that might help us support cognitive diversity in our own lives (and a similar message could be designed into and facilitated within collaborative working too). To praraphrase:

  • Recognize homophily and proactively set about seeking dissimilarity (perhaps in part through random choices rather than sticking to what is familiar). 
  • Explicitly try to operate collaborations using both bonding and bridging capital.
  • Be willing to rock the boat and change things up to encourage participants to challenge their assumptions.
  • Keep returning to why you want to collaborate in the first place and focus on the original goal.


Hartford does not stop with collaboration but looks at other dimensions of creativity - one chapter in the book focuses on improvisation for both policy and entrepreneurs alike. He does this by contrasting how Miles Davis constructed the sessions that made A Kind of Blue, with the battlefield tactics of confusion and faster reaction time adopted by Erwin Rommel (as complemented by the post-war US military strategy theories of John Boyd).

All thought-provoking stuff.

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