Learnings from LIAISON: what’s the secret to successful collaboration?
Complex problems require complex solutions
Two years of watching governments grapple with science, business, health and human behaviour have surely demonstrated that working in groups that bring together participants from diverse backgrounds to solve complex problems is both challenging and rewarding. It is also the way forward!
In our sector – food, farming and forestry – the projects and plans we work on as scientists, NGOs, academics, farmers, funders and businesses deal with similar levels of complexity. We must balance environmental, social, practical and economic angles – amongst others – to find solutions to the challenges of growing healthy food while also supporting biodiversity and communities and ensuring the livelihoods of those involved in the process.
In short, we are often tasked with creating innovative outcomes from complex starting points, working alongside people from other disciplines, with different paymasters, stakeholder, structures and financial resources. This ‘multi-actor’ dynamic is a challenge: even with the best will in the world and the best people on the project, coordinating a wide variety of points of view, ideas and know-how is a difficult process in itself.
So how do we find our way to a common goal, keeping true to our mission, keeping momentum and keeping everyone working together?
The LIAISON project (Better Rural Innovation: Linking Actors, Instruments and Policies through Networks) has been looking at exactly this issue for the past four years, exploring ways of speeding up innovation in agriculture, forestry and related sectors by 'unlock(ing) the potential of working in partnership for innovation’.
LIAISON has been digging into the operations and outcomes of different size projects, managed by varied partnerships with experts from different disciplines, embedded in different cultural and geographical environments, and working towards complex solutions.
In doing this, the project has identified drivers that help groups organise themselves efficiently, capturing and nurturing new ideas and creating comprehensive solutions. It has also recognised why others struggle at different stages and/or to fully realise their ambitions. To make these learning accessible to wider audiences, we have developed the project’s ‘How To’ guides ...
Introducing the LIAISON ‘How To’ guides
To help you and your multi-faceted team navigate the perils and pitfalls of these kinds of projects, this series of ‘How To’ guides distils best practice learned by LIAISON. They guide you through the process (from start to finish) and point you to other useful resources developed by the LIAISON team that can help you make the most of this process.
The guides cover these five key topics:
- Coming Together: navigating the innovation journey (with downloadable pdf)
- Good Planning: design and development (with downloadable pdf)
- Healthy Partnerships: active collaboration and working together (with downloadable pdf)
- Connected Partnerships: engagement and building networks (with downloadable pdf)
- Achieving Impact: sharing, disseminating and creating a legacy (with downloadable pdf)
Coming Together looks at the early phase of a project, from idea development to getting started. It covers:
- Originating ideas
- Identifying and engaging with the most relevant participants (even some that might be hard to reach)
- What characterises an effective leader?
- Securing funding
- Setting a monitoring and evaluation plan from the start for the idea to successfully become a reality
Example in practice:
Through RISS (Scotland's Rural Innovation Support Service) our farming team in Scotland brought together dairy farmers, agricultural organisations and academics to create a blueprint for genetic improvement in breeding. Following agroecological principals of pasture-based grazing, those involved saw increased productivity and profitability, and unlocked potential for similar programmes across all livestock sectors. What was key to this project was that it harvested the perspectives that each industry group brought to the table, catalysing mutual innovation.
Find out more about RISS: Speeding Up Dairy Breeding
“It's very interesting to see the speed with which these new innovations are being applied” Professor Mike Coffey, SCRU
> Download Coming Together (pdf)
Once a project is underway, you need to make sure the group can collaborate efficiently and move forward. Good Planning looks at:
- Gathering participants around a shared vision with defined targets and objectives
- Engaging with known and new collaborators to secure the right mix of partners with the right skills and experiences; this includes end-users who are key for successful implementation
- Agreeing on clear governance structures
- Assigning and evaluating roles and activities
- Exploring different leadership and management styles
- The role of facilitation, key to group progress and meeting your goals
Example in practice
Our recent Agroforestry in the Uplands film demonstrates how a recognised practice (planting trees on farms) is an idea more farmers would benefit from understanding in order to have the confidence to implement on their own land. By orientating knowledge creation towards farmers we can guarantee the content will be relevant to the agricultural community as a whole. So far, the film has been seen over 53,000 times.
Watch Agroforestry in the Uplands film.
> Download Good Planning (pdf)
Healthy Partnerships looks at collaboration and communication, and what makes groups work as seamlessly as possible. We cover:
- Tools to improve the quality of interaction in a diverse group, highlighting individual and group dynamics that make it easier to collaborate
- Creating a culture of cooperation and shared decision-making
- Dealing with diversity, in terms of professions, jargon, language, culture and geographical area
- What good leaders and coordinators can do to keep the process flowing
- Continuous monitoring to appraise how relations are evolving and, if necessary, adapt the process to improve results
Example in practice
Robust Potato Pledge: Retailers, growers, seed developers, supply chain operators, academic research and NGOs came together to find a solution to the perennial problem of how to develop blight-free organic potatoes. By bringing everyone to the table, we can ensure the success of the project.
Marija Rompani, Director of Ethics and Sustainability, at the John Lewis Partnership, said “We’re constantly looking for ways to improve our impact on nature and biodiversity. This pledge is a great opportunity for us to help reduce our environmental impact through innovation”
Read more about the Robust Potato Pledge.
> Download Healthy Partnerships (pdf)
These projects aim to have an impact in their members’ wider environment. The Connected Partnerships guide show how to connect with stakeholders beyond the partnership, renewing the flux of ideas and ensuring the outcomes are relevant to end-users. It helps you to:
- Identify, prioritise and engage with stakeholders both in and outside the partnership, understanding their motivations and finding good fits
- Ensure open communication with stakeholders encouraging them to share and bring in new ideas and fresh points of view
- Pinpoint specific indicators so you can evaluate how well the group is engaging and working with external participants
- Explore the relevance of bringing in end-users, and how to identify and engage any potential ‘project champions’ amongst them – those who would be willing to share outcomes with wider audiences
Example in practice
Innovative Farmers field lab, Improving Hop Soils Through Cover Cropping, looks for different soil health properties, and assess this against a range of parameters including organic matter, mineral nitrogen, earthworms and water infiltration rate. The established practice on hop farms is to dig up the entire plant at harvest to remove risk of Verticillium wilt contamination in the soil, leaving it starved of nutrients. Initial trials on four monitor farms quickly encouraged others in the industry to follow suit.
"I would estimate now about half the hop industry in the UK is using cover crops, so it's really started a conversation within the sector." Rob Saunders, Project Coordinator
Find out more about the hops cover crops field lab
> Download Connected Partnerships (pdf)
Finally, the goal of any project is to have impact. This requires the right engagement and a strategy to assess its impact. Achieving Impact explores how to:
- Set a monitoring and evaluation plan from the start to increase the chances of the idea to becoming a reality
- Explore key considerations around suitable funding opportunities to maximise the chances of success when applying
- Make sure your methods of measuring and evaluating are strong, and can feed into your project communication strategy
- Identify key ‘idea spreaders’ to support this strategy
- Boost your influence by developing communication strategies for wider audiences
- Make sure the relevant networks and stakeholders know what you’re doing and what you’ve achieved
Example in practice
The Innovative Farmers programme is celebrating a decade of 'field lab' trials and has shown that farmer-led research has the power to improve the health of thousands of animals, eliminate tonnes of harmful chemicals, and save the farming industry millions of pounds. More than 120 field labs have placed farmers in the driving seat of agricultural research, with the network connected with around 12,000 UK farmers.
Living Mulches Field lab
Read more about Innovative Farmers and how they demonstrate multi-actor partnerships in action.
> Download Achieving Impact (pdf)
Download all five guides from LIAISON's website. The site is sometimes slow to load. If you can't find the guides, search How To Guides using the search field in the top right hand corner.
In addition to the guides, this four-module (12 hr) training course has been developed to share and disseminate key findings from the LIAISON project.
It is designed for practitioners who are already involved in multi-actor projects or individuals who are interested in learning more about effective ways to work together in co-innovation projects.
The course is designed over four three-hour sessions and includes a trainer’s guide, presentation materials, exercises, case studies and handouts.
Find out more
Find out about our work with LIAISON, which is part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
LIAISON receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 773418. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this document lies entirely with the authors and cannot be considered to reflect the views of any body of the European Union.