Collaborating on a project on collaboration – and what the TROPICO research really means for us

17 Dec 2021 | Published by Karolina Poltorak

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TROPICO came to its conclusion on November 30th. After the first reaction – “phew, we managed to submit all deliverables on time after all!” – and a couple of calmer days, it is now time for some reflections. What did these 4,5 years of the project truly mean to us – members of the TROPICO team? What kind of impact on our professional lives did they have?

Some answers jump to mind – our experience has increased a lot, we have gained new and crucial insights, have more publications in our CVs, have gained a bunch of new friends, and we hope that the project will help us in getting interesting work positions and relevant tasks in the future.

Now that we are reflecting on TROPICO’s impact, we are also struck by the fact that over the last 4,5 years we practiced precisely what our project’s main research interest was – collaboration! We learned how to collaborate internally – within the project Consortium, and externally – with the European Commission, other Horizon 2020 projects, and with research participants, policy makers, and practitioners. Even though TROPICO focused on governmental collaboration, we realise how meaningful the project findings also have been for our own collaborative work, and how much we have learned.

For instance, our White Paper provides guidance for practitioners on how to collaborate in the digital era. It turns out, however, that the specific suggestions for action could also easily be applied to other contexts, such as working on a project like TROPICO.

There are many examples of situations when collaboration within TROPICO reflected project findings. For instance, in our research, leadership proved to be a recurring topic. One take-away message from this research is that a good leader must be flexible. In some situations, s/he needs to use collaborative leadership to resolve conflicts and motivate the partners. In other cases, a leader needs a more traditional, transactional leadership style to promote compliance and ensure efficiency. How true that is, also in the context of an EU project! Our own experiences in TROPICO confirm it. When many partners, representing different countries, research institutions and groups, traditions and working styles, are involved, coordinating a project requires the exact same skills – to inspire, resolve conflicts and facilitate dialogue. In other cases (read: when deadlines are chasing!), monitoring the progress and focusing on the objectives and concrete tasks, which characterise transactional leadership, are just as crucial to make things work.

The TROPICO research has also shown the importance of exploring new knowledge and ideas while collaborating. As highlighted in our analysis of collaboration and innovation in public-private partnerships, work in TROPICO itself also required transformative learning, connecting various ideas, and using external feedback – in our case from our advisory boards, practitioners, and other researchers. Such inputs were extremely valuable and helped us express our findings in a more useful and understandable way to the relevant target groups. Of course, a ‘feedback culture’ is not something that happens by default. As a coordinator team, we put active efforts to encourage the TROPICO partners to seek for additional feedback and ideas, and we are happy that many of them used this opportunity.

And finally – the high importance of trust! Even though this was not a core topic in the TROPICO research initially, it ultimately became essential and was raised at various occasions and in different contexts. Trust also proved crucial for the collaboration in TROPICO. During the project we experienced challenges and uncertainties, but we always knew that we could count on our partners. It is also worth to mention that, as TROPICO research showed, we also found that the use of ICT can be especially beneficial in collaborations with established trust. Our project indeed worked a lot in a virtual space – not in the least only because of the COVID-19 situation – and used digital tools to communicate, cooperate, interact, and disseminate. This would have been far more complicated without a strong network and trust at the base.

Our reflections after TROPICO’s completion instil optimism. They show that although being a part of a big research project is not always easy, the Consortium has beyond doubt together passed the exam in “collaboration in practice”. In our own experience, our findings really matter!

Now, new challenges and collaborations are ahead of us, but first we – the coordinators team – would like to express our huge thanks to our partners and supporting actors for this joint work and effort. We have mentioned it on several occasions, but we still cannot stress it enough – TROPICO’s final success would not be possible without you.

Eventually – we made it!