Collaboration: managing expectations

Purpose: To highlight four areas (incentives, timelines, decision making and dissemination) where collaborations often run into trouble and to provide sets of questions that can clarify partner expectations at the outset of the partnership.

Description: Questions are designed for both academic and practitioner partners and aim to clarify priorities and assumptions, so that potential tensions can be turned into productive and creative exchanges. While the questions are written for collaborations between academics in developed countries and practitioner partners in developing countries, they can easily be adapted for other collaborations, including between academics only.

The process involves the following steps:

  • Early in the collaboration, partners first address the questions on their own and then come together to discuss their answers.
  • The outcome of the discussion is recorded.
  • There are check-ins during the course of the project to review if adjustments are needed.

Before embarking on this process, it is useful for projects to have an exploratory phase where partners can get to know each other and the contexts in which each of them is working, and where initial assumptions and misunderstandings can be clarified. Finding out about previous collaborative experiences can be helpful.


Why is each party interested in the research partnership and what do they expect to achieve? It is important to ensure that there is real buy-in at all levels on both sides of the collaboration.



The practitioner world tends to work on annual project and donor timelines, which have deadlines for reporting, renewals, and fundraising. Academic timelines tend to revolve around windows of opportunity to access funding and the academic calendar for teaching, dissertations and career advancement.


Decision making

How will decisions in the project be made and by whom? Clarifying roles and responsibilities as well as decision-making processes can support productive exchange.



Practitioners and academics often think differently about how to use results. For academics, it’s typical to think in long timelines, towards peer-reviewed publications. For practitioners, timelines are often shorter, and results may be used to adjust programs, influence policy or inform a public dialogue.



  • This is adapted from: MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB). 2020. “How to Have Difficult Conversations / A Practical Guide for Academic-Practitioner Research Collaborations”. Version 2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Governance Lab (United States). Authors: Varja Lipovsek and Alisa Zomer. Designers: Susy Tort and Gabriela Reygadas. (Online – open access):

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Posted: June 2021
Last modified: June 2021