Skip to main content

Design Your Collaborative Process

Design Your Collaborative Process

The next question to consider as you are designing a collaborative science project is: How should people be engaged and involved? No single approach makes sense for all projects. Consider the purpose, scale, budget, and context of your proposed approach, and how your intended users will be impacted.

Collaborative science projects are driven by a specific management need. In this section, we draw on observations from Science Collaborative projects and lean on the Collaborative Science Principles to offer some guidance on how to design and structure a successful project — a project that demonstrates your commitment to addressing users' needs and understanding barriers to their full participation in the project. The core purpose of a project should help you determine the frequency and breadth of collaboration required and the sort of engagement mechanisms that might be needed to achieve that purpose.


  Tip: Consider your project's scale, level of conflict, complexity, and context

In addition to the needs of the project and the individuals you hope to engage, there are other factors to consider when designing a project.

  • Scale

Be conscious of your project ’s budget and geographic scope. A smaller effort, or a project that would primarily benefit a specific place, may not need broad engagement throughout the whole project. If work is spread across a large region, virtual engagement methods are likely to be more important.



“...the result was better than I could have imagined because...we made sure we understood what everybody was saying”

Hear more from a state agency environmental scientist »

  • Amount of conflict

Some management issues are contentious, and projects may need to anticipate and manage potential conflicts. This could involve thoughtfully inviting the participation of people with different viewpoints and affiliations, hiring a professional mediator for certain meetings, or making time for individual conversations with key players before larger meetings.



“I think the group was very helpful at answering questions…”

Hear more from a dam safety practice leader »

  • Level of technicality

Projects with highly specialized or technical methods and results, such as modeling projects, may need to build in extra time to provide background needed to understand and contribute to project conversations. It may be as simple as ensuring ample time to explain technical details during meetings. Some teams have found it helpful to create separate technical and policy/outreach advisory groups to provide participants the space to focus on distinct sets of questions for the project. 

  • Community context

Project teams should be conscious of the communities affected by their project; their primary users may not represent all the relevant perspectives. Consider whether the project needs, or would benefit from, the knowledge of residents, or of minority or Indigenous communities.

If the project includes social science research or broader community engagement, consider whether your methods are reaching the entire community. Invite your team to brainstorm engagement strategies that are appropriate for your community context and your project's goals.

This is another area where people whom you have identified as liaisons to key communities can provide advice and connections to ensure you are appropriately engaged.

Engagement activities must be timed and designed to support the project's technical work. The frequency of meeting with intended users should be based on when the project team needs to get critical input and enlist support. As with technical work, the order of operations matters.

Here are some questions for your team to consider regarding user input:

  • What type of input and support do you need from users?
  • What project decisions will be influenced by that input?
  • When is that input needed? What processes will be shaped by that input?
  • Does a regular meeting schedule make sense? Or will your research timeline require input timed to address specific processes?
  • What products will be shaped by that input? Will the products be tools that users need to apply, or will they provide information to be used in their development?
  • How thoroughly will users need to review the product before it is finalized? How many opportunities should they be given to review and provide feedback?
  • How deeply must users participate in the project if they are to feel confident in the outputs?
  • Is it important for there to be group conversations about the project? For example, will users want to hear and build on the perspectives shared by partner agencies?

Core Purposes

Consider how your project's core purpose might dictate the appropriate collaborative process for your project. For example, we have noticed that projects generating new research to inform management tend to have less frequent interactions with users, although it is important to involve senior decision makers at key points to ensure confidence in results. In contrast, projects developing more technical tools — such as sampling protocols, data visualization tools, or online viewers — require a higher degree of collaboration, iteration, and interaction with users.

The table below outlines some of the common elements we have noticed among Science Collaborative projects designed to meet different management needs. You might also find it helpful to look through examples of projects and their problem statements that illustrate how they tackled each type of management need within their diverse contexts.

Critical ingredients: A rigorous research process involving scientists and managers ensures that the specific management needs are understood, the research questions are explicitly framed to address those needs, and project products have a form and content that will be directly usable by managers.

Timing: There could be stretches of time when research teams focus on technical work and have only minimal interactions with intended users. However, input from users is crucial at certain moments in these projects, such as:

  • Framing and focusing the project.
  • Making certain methodological decisions that will ensure a project is testing actual conditions that management will encounter.
  • Summarizing findings in technical or outreach products.

Breadth of involvement: Broad involvement may not be needed beyond the key decision-making entities that will need to trust the final results. Teams should consider ways to encourage cooperation by staff and supervisors in key agencies.

Common mechanisms: These include direct individual communication, small group meetings at key agencies, and advisory group meetings at key moments.

Critical ingredients: Sustained engagement of intended users enables them to inform and test the products to make sure that they are tailored to the management need and usable by the intended users.

Timing: Projects that will produce a tool to be used in an interactive way require close collaboration with users to discuss the scope, to review specifications, and then to test one or several versions of a new tool.

Breadth of involvement: A representative set of potential users may be able to provide in-depth feedback to ensure relevance to secondary users. Primary users are often technically trained and active contributors.

Common mechanisms: Some users may be a core part of the team or serve on a working group. Teams often host workshops to invite users to test a tool, or may use user interviews or facilitated beta testing methods to get specific feedback.

Critical ingredients: The project must draw on a mix of expertise, including natural science and policy analysis, practitioner perspectives and community awareness. It is essential to involve those in a position to act on whatever guidance is produced (i.e., those with jurisdiction or authority).

Timing: There likely are moments early in a project and toward the end when interaction with users is most important.

Breadth of involvement: Senior agency professionals, municipal employees, community members, or policy makers may have limited time to dedicate to a project. Some financial support could enable a staff member to participate more actively or even join a team.

Common mechanisms: These include direct individual communication, small-group meetings at key agencies, focus groups, or advisory group meetings. User representatives may be part of the team.

Critical ingredients: Project design and activities vary widely but must be responsive to a particular need or opportunity in a unique context. Engagement is often broad and multi-tiered for these projects.

Timing: Collaboration and outreach often occurs throughout this type of project, with additional effort invested in specific events.

Breadth of involvement: These projects often engage a wide range of intended users and participants to share lessons and advance coordination across organizations.

Common mechanisms: Teams may strive to reach different tiers of audiences through a suite of approaches, such as cross-sector working groups, community of practice meetings or online platforms, training and workshops, or broader communication and outreach methods.


Resource: Example Problem Statements

The 12 example problem statements in this resource (Google Doc) illustrate projects addressing the four categories of management needs. The statements can prompt thinking about how to envision and design a new project.

A simple approach is likely to be more feasible and adaptable in the long run. Teams often need to modify their plans and engagement methods as a project unfolds. After the first meeting, intended users may indicate that they cannot commit to quarterly meetings or that biannual meetings seem adequate. Or conversations with users may need to get delayed because critical results are not yet ready to share. Remember that each extra layer of structure, such as creating subcommittees within an advisory group, will increase the time and effort required to manage the process.


“[What] we're trying to do, it’s just one of one hundred balls that are in the air…”

Hear more from a federal senior research scientist »

The choice of engagement collaboration methods should be dictated by the project end goals. If ensuring close alignment with a single agency is essential to success, then prioritize direct collaboration and individual meetings with that key user. If your final recommendations will not be trusted and accepted unless they are endorsed by a range of organizations, design your process to get the support of those players at key moments.

To help you compare specific engagement and collaboration methods, we have prepared the table below that includes examples and observations from Collaborative Science projects. In some cases, projects used a combination of methods.

Depth of Engagement Versus Meeting Frequency Graph


Project example: Adjusting collaborative approach based on user feedback

Early feedback can result in significant changes to your collaboration plan, as a team from the South Slough Research Reserve learned in a project focused on supporting native oyster restoration in Coos Bay. Read this case study or visit their project page.


Project example: Respectful collaboration across knowledge systems

Having a flexible mindset can help a team ensure respectful integration of different forms of knowledge. A team at the Lake Superior Research Reserve took an intentional pause, let go of their assumptions, and adjusted their approach to go deeper with their collaborators. This case study highlights a valuable example of how to navigate projects that span differing knowledge systems.

Ask your team to reflect on prior experiences, recent project planning efforts, and their knowledge of your users to help you plan the right approach. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How have project planning conversations with intended users unfolded so far? Have they been productive, comfortable, and successful?
  • Do your users seem to prefer the efficiency of communicating with you directly and on their time? Do they prefer that you come to their spaces for individual conversations? Or do they appreciate the chance to brainstorm and share concerns as a group?
  • Are there individuals or communities you want to involve but haven ’t been able to reach yet?

Consider ways to build trust, open a line of communication, and eliminate barriers to participating. Look for opportunities to go to their spaces, offices, and towns at times convenient to them, to talk rather than inviting people to a meeting in an unfamiliar and less accessible location or time. Invite the help and advice of partners who can serve as liaisons to a hard-to-reach group.


“Something that the researcher did really well was engaging stakeholders, getting them out and about...”

Hear more from a conservation district manager  »

  • Are key users more likely to participate if they are invited to serve on a formal project advisory group?
  • Are there existing groups or initiatives that your project can build on?

Consider attending those meetings to encourage participation in your project and learn from the style and structure of those meetings.

  • Are there researchers and practitioners working on your issue already who could aid in your work?

If so, it could make sense to build in a mechanism for broader communication and coordination, or perhaps invite them as key liaisons to your project meetings.

  • Find opportunities for the team and partners to be together "in place," such as at a location that is related to the focus of the project. This can deepen the group's understanding of the place and one another's perspectives.