Aligning objectives to increase impact

Collaboration is hard in the best of times. Throw in incompatible goals and objectives, and it is downright impossible.

Significantly improving how research and innovation get done requires many adjustments to its complicated and interconnected system. One part of this system can rarely make a change independently; to make an effective change, many organizations, processes, organizations, and people must also accommodate and adapt to this change. When all of these actors have clear and complementary incentives to adopt and add to a change, the result can be magical.

But what if their objectives are not the same or not enough care is invested in articulating the end goal or in understanding what each party’s objectives are so that adjustments to the plan can be made to ensure that objectives align. This situation leads to missed expectations; little, slow, or no progress; and wasted resources. Unfortunately, this undesirable outcome happens to too many large-scale infrastructure projects. How do we stack the cards for success?

Setting a goal

Even a seemingly straightforward goal like addressing the needs presented by the COVID-19 pandemic can get quickly complicated when looking at the goal’s details. What needs should be addressed, and in what way?

The scholarly publishing organizations I work with quickly created a visionary goal - to ensure that all researchers have access to relevant scholarly literature to understand the past research that can provide insights into how to address COVID-19. They quickly unlocked coronavirus-related academic papers that normally would only be available to paid subscribers of the content. For example, an open-resource literature hub (LitCovid) was developed with support from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Elsevier has recently made 20,000 articles free to access from journals where one would normally have needed a subscription, among others. These are fantastic and generous contributions from these publishers that should not be discounted.

Although, in the details, this goal gets a bit muddled. Who are “all researchers”? What does it mean to “have access,” and how is this access provided? And, what information and resources would be considered to be “relevant,” and who gets to decide? It turns out that the answers to these questions are highly dependent on each organization’s objectives for achieving the goal.

Understanding objectives

One organization’s objectives include increasing awareness about their publications. Another is trying to bolster their reputation for being altruistic and friendly toward researchers. Yet another might be participating because they don’t want to be left behind. None of these objectives are wrong on their own. They reflect the needs of the organization, possibly specific to this point in time. However, the way that these objectives are expressed can be quite incompatible.

The first organization may want to emphasize publications that come from their own publications. When helping researchers to discover other related information, they may only present those they produced rather than including the most related information across all publishers. The second organization may decide to open access to all of their publications rather than just those related to COVID to show their altruism. However, this flood of information which includes likely irrelevant items, may make it harder for researchers to find relevant information. And a third more reluctant organization may decide to narrowly define “all researchers” so that those receiving access would likely have already paid for subscriptions to these resources. Here they could promote the unlocked resources potentially without the financial impact of doing so but limiting access in the process.

In aggregate, the result does not quite add up to the original goal - different definitions of who, what, and how lead to a far lower impact.

Collaborative effort is harder but can be more effective

To increase the impact, it may not be necessary to change each organization’s objectives. Collaboration includes recognizing what each party needs to make their individual contribution effective for them. The process of collaboration determines how the expression of these objectives is adjusted to be more compatible with each other.

Perhaps the organization looking for promotion can find it by enabling ways for their publications to be promoted among those of the other two. The organization that values its altruistic reputation may offer to organize its collaborative effort for public recognition of this contribution. And the reluctant organization may find ways to be included in the effort that does not compromise their bottom line.

Collaboration is hard in the best of times. But it is worth it in the end. Find a way to align the expression of objectives to make everyone a winner. What alignment can you make in your own projects to increase your goal’s impact?