MATURE Project Coordination: Experiences from the 1st year

It has been an exciting year, working as the scientific coordinator and (as Pablo Franzolini, the other part of the management team, likes to put it) the “moral authority” of the MATURE project. The team consists of more than 50 people from various background plus an additional group of associate partners of more than 30 organizations. This team is actually the best team I have ever experienced in a research project: highly motivated, creative, with renowned specialists in their field – and a team spirit. The coordination job does not become easy, but your effort becomes really rewarding. After 12 months, it is now time to reflect on it:

Openness and participation vs. managing complexity. For MATURE, we have chosen from the beginning a very open collaboration style with other initiatives. Mainly through our associate partner network, we have established contacts with various companies, research institutions and other initiatives. This gives you the opportunity to discuss your ideas with many different people and collect various constraints and requirements from their practical experience. You can also start joint activities that yield mutual benefit to increase impact and quality. However, such an approach is always at the edge regarding complexity. An Integrating Project with around 50 active participants is already a complex environment, but the open approach that complexity with different timelines, different goal structures etc., which have to be aligned.

Guidance according to the seeding-reseeding-evolutionary growth model. What is the role of a coordinator in such a project with high degrees of uncertainty? In “The Effective Executive” Drucker puts forward the main guiding question: “What contribution from me do you require to make your contribution?” So, a coordinator needs to act as a moderator of parallel strands of activities, giving guidance only where the lack of guidance would prevent people from making their contributions. Fischer’s SER model, which we have used for MATURE, seems to be a good model. It consists of three recurring phases in creative processes: seeding refers to given a group an initial starting point to start working on, evolutionary growth is the phase where the group develops their ideas without external intervention, and reseeding is an intervention in which the results of evolutionary growth are examined, pruned, and new input is provided to the group. We have used that paradigm both for the ethnographic study analysis, and especially for the use case development. In the latter case, groups of application and technical partners were asked to come up with use cases for technology support that improves knowledge maturing. The basis (=seeding) were the personas from the ethnographic studies and a framework for use case descriptions. After a phase of evolutionary growth, use cases were examined, clustered, merged and a refined description framework was given. The groups then worked on those use cases again. This has yielded very rich use cases and negotiated use cases (technically feasible, challenging from a research perspective, and based on needs of application partners).

Role of collective sensemaking. In previous projects, I have already learned how important collective sensemaking is for a project’s coherence and building a real team. Sensemaking here mainly refers to making sense (in the large) out of what we do (or have done) in smaller-scale situations. For the degrees of freedom and the level of uncertainty in research projects, top-down planning (the “master plan”) is simply not appropriate:

  • Top-down planning usually provokes the “following a plan” behavior, taking care of your own activities only, rather than caring for the project as a whole. People usually feel that something is wrong with the master plan, but are not subversive enough to challenge it.
  • Top-down planning does not adequately reflect the learning process within the project team. Plan revisions are usually slow and cumbersome so that you rather stick to the old plan.
  • Top-down planning avoids team discussions and decisions what is right or best by choosing something mediocre. Following a plan is way easier than having a planning framework within which you can and have to do your own planning in cooperation with others that are related to your activities.

A far better instrument than planning is the synchronization and coordination of activities through collective stories that bring together the individual pieces into a coherent whole. Such story building and collective sensemaking is a continuous process that is sufficiently agile to incorporate new insights and environmental changes, but ensures project coherence.