Recently I heard a talk by Tom Clark, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, about their efforts over the last 25 years to improve the economic climate in metro Denver. Those of you who are long-time Denver residents (as I am) are aware of many of the changes in our area, but perhaps not how many of them have been fostered by the MDEDC: reducing air pollution (from a time in the 80's when Denver was the second most polluted city in the US); building two new sports stadiums; revitalizing Lower Downtown Denver (LoDo); building a light rail system; a new airport; and others. These efforts involved coordinating nine county governments and 70 municipalities, each with its own elected leadership. The challenge was to change the culture from one of competition, where communities would compete to host new businesses, to one of cooperation, where each group was willing to forego short-term economic advantages in order to achieve larger, long-term benefit. In other words, the MDEDC had to persuade groups to collaborate in an environment where it couldn't control them.
Sounds like network-based research, doesn't it?
Mr. Clark had some advice for networks and their leaders that applies pretty well to us in research networks:
- Organize ourselves the way our customers see us rather than the way we see ourselves.
- Mistrust is a key barrier to collaboration; find ways to keep each other informed.
- Don't get out in front of the network members and persuade them to follow; stand behind them and encourage them in the right direction.
- Words matter. Talk about the network as a whole, not the individual entities. Always take the regional (network. enterprise) perspective.
- Develop networks within your network (e.g. networks of mayors, cultural/arts organizations, transit, airport, etc for MDEDC). Each of these networks must have leaders elected by its members (not imposed from "above").
- Develop appreciation of one member for another (e.g. help suburbs appreciate the assets of the center city)
- Listen and include stakeholders, and then act with intention.
- Develop a code of ethics and live by it.
- Create a culture of custom, not regulation.
- Publicly recognize entities that act on behalf of others (e.g. a city that directs a business that it can't support to another city in the region)
- Enlarge the tent - you get your say, not necessarily your way.
- Be curious - look outside your own network for answers. Don't be insular.
- Create an environment where people feel safe enough to take risks, and stand behind them when they do.
- Be vigilant about giving credit, not about asking for it.
You may or may not agree with all of these points, but it's an inspiring and humbling list to me. These ideals are hard to live up to. One way of summarizing this might be - if you want to be an agent of change, act on the behalf of interests larger than your own. And when you lead, lead by example.
As we enter a new era of research when fewer and fewer research studies will be based on members, data, or investigators from a single site, we need to learn how to live in, and lead in, collaborative networks. I think the IHR is off to a good start. We get lots of recognition for being good collaborators. These ideas can help keep us on the path.
John F. Steiner, MD, MPH