Four Lessons to Take Your Work Environment From Competitive to Collaborative
Ontario Brain Institute (OBI) was created to change how brain research was done, and the challenge was palpable: getting world-class clinicians and researchers who are used to competing with each other to work together. More than just working together, though, we had to figure out how to get researchers to truly collaborate, by standardizing assessments and sharing data.
As part of the team that established the OBI, these are the lessons we learned along the way. Although drawn from the real-world experience of building a "world-class" research institution, these same ideas can be applied by graduate students, postdocs, young investigators, lab managers, and other managers of science to improve your work and working environment.
Lesson 1: Set Principles
Principles are critical to managing science. In the early days of launching a new initiative or project, take the time to set some basic principles. These serve as a foundation on which you'll build your project.
Engage your partners and team members early in the discussion in order to ensure that they buy into the principles and have a sense of ownership over them. Once you've established principles together, use them to maintain focus and to keep everyone working toward the same goal. The principles can (and should!) be used to evaluate opportunities that come up, like the direction of your research or new partnerships to embark on.
Lesson 2: Share Your Thinking
Scientists have many competing interests, priorities, and grants, so it's unrealistic to expect anyone to remember most of the details about your projects. Likewise, don't assume that people will approach your work with the same perspective as you. You are the expert on your project, and you likely care the most about it. By sharing insight into your thought process, you'll help others to care about your project too. Providing context reminds your partners about the principles and goals of a project, the decisions you made to get to where you are, and what's been discussed and/or decided before you address the next steps.
Lesson 3: Communicate Clearly
When reaching out to an advisor or collaborator, start out by reminding them what's been discussed, especially what you have already agreed upon, and then lay out what you now need from them.
For example, if you're reporting to a committee about a series of experiments, rather than simply showing the results, start by explaining why you took a certain approach. It could follow a format like this one: "At my last committee meeting, I showed you some initial results about X. We agreed on the following next steps because we wanted to rule out hypothesis Y. Here are my results. Based on these results, I need your help with Z."
Lesson 4: Show Colleagues You Care
Caring isn't about befriending everyone or even socializing with your colleagues. It's about listening to your partners' perspectives, understanding their challenges, and working with them to find solutions that align with the principles you set together.
It's also about treating your colleagues (including the people who work for you) with empathy and respect. You are trying to build trust, which is the foundation of every relationship. If you care about what's keeping them up at night, they are more likely to care about what's keeping you up at night.
Say you notice that a colleague has missed an important deadline. Approach them about it with empathy. You might say something like, "You never got me those comments on our manuscript. This is not like you. Is there anything going on?" Listen to their response and identify what you can do that might help. If your colleague is worried about an upcoming committee meeting, offer to run through their presentation with them. If it's a big grant, offer to provide constructive but honest feedback.
Research is mostly a solitary pursuit, but there's no need to do it alone. Look up from your work from time to time and check in with your colleagues. They are likely going through the same experience as you are. See this as an opportunity to build camaraderie and look out for each other. The relationships you forge in the "minefield" of research will likely benefit you througout your career.
Considerations for Scientists Early in Their Career
If you're early in your career and feel "lost," or if you're undergoing a career transition and feel like your focus has shifted too much, take some time to reflect on what you would like to achieve in the long-term and how collaboration may play a part in this. Is research your forever job? Do you want to work in industry? Do you like to work with others, or do you prefer to work independently? Use the answers to these questions to set some basic principles for your career.
For example, someone who is undertaking a PhD because they want to work in pharma and like to collaborate might decide to focus on translational research and maintain a collaborative environment. Applying and talking about these principles when searching for a supervisor or planning a research project can help ensure that everyone is onboard, which will make for a more supportive environment. They can also help you avoid environments and projects that are not suited to your values and interests.
How We Put It All Together
Since 2012, when we formed the Ontario Brain Institute, we've lived these lessons, reflecting on our founding principles, providing context, communicating, and caring. Currently, the Institute has over 240 researchers or clinicians, 77 portfolio companies, and over 20 patient groups in our network. We also hold data from over 21,000 subjects in our neuroinformatics platform and are poised for our first two clinical data releases. As we keep reaching toward our vision to improve brain health through research, commercialization, and care, we'll continue to use these lessons to make sure we achieve it.