Collaboration = harnessing and managing difference

Purpose: To highlight that managing research collaborations requires the ability to deal with two categories of differences. First are differences that are relevant to successfully working together on a particular research problem. Second are incidental differences that have the potential to get in the way of developing a successful partnership.

Description: The point of collaboration is to combine different skills and attributes, including perspectives, skills and resources. But collaborators do not just come with desirable differences to be harnessed. Some differences – for example in values, personality, or perspectives on the problem – can cause unproductive conflict and get in the way of collaboration. They must be managed for the research to proceed.

Whether a difference is useful or problematic depends on the particulars of the collaboration. For example, in some collaborations radically different perspectives about the problem and its causes can be an important difference to be harnessed in order to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the problem and ability to act on it. In another collaboration such a difference may be incidental to the task in hand and instead provide a source of friction that needs to be managed so that it does not derail the partnership.

Harnessing differences

Methods for harnessing differences include:

  • dialogue to develop a shared understanding
  • building something together – this can be a model of the problem or a product to tackle it (Bammer, 2013).

Managing differences

The task is not to eliminate disagreements and the competition they often encompass, as these can provide a vital stimulus to creativity. Instead, the aim is to minimise the tensions and disputes that prevent people from working together constructively. Useful strategies include:

  • fostering reciprocity, based on the precept that partners treat each other as they wish to be treated. This provides a general foundation for satisfactory working relationships based on trust and respect, as well as laying the way to solving problems through principle-based negotiation which seeks fair solutions. It also requires rewards resulting from the research collaboration to be allocated in proportion to the contributions made by different research partners.
  • building on a broad sweep of knowledge about conflict resolution and building trust. This includes:
    – understanding differences in personality types, cultural norms, mental models, emotional intelligence, team role skills and so on, that – by explaining why differences exist – may result in conflict meting away
    – using conflict resolution tools, such as principled negotiation, to find a fair solution, for example to differences in interests.

What’s needed

Providing a systematic way of thinking about the role of differences in research collaborations highlights useful areas for further development in identifying useful and problematic differences, along with methods for harnessing those that are useful for the collaboration and managing those with the potential to get in the way of successfully working together.


Bammer, G. 2008 ‘Enhancing research collaboration: Three key management challenges’ Research Policy, 37, 875-887.

Bammer, G. 2013 Disciplining Interdisciplinarity: Integration and Implementation Sciences for Researching Complex Real-World Problems. ANU Press.

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Posted: November 2014
Last modified: June 2019