Talking about balancing belonging and freedom at work in Research Matters magazine

| Anna Eaton

Earlier this year I was delighted to answer some questions for the Social Research Association’s quarterly Research Matters magazine about our organisational structure as part of their look at business models for social research. We are really proud of what we’ve created here at the Ideas Alliance since we set out back in 2016. We by no means have it all worked out, but we love working with our team, our network of brilliant associates and partners and learning together as we go.

Research Matters is a great online magazine for anyone interested in social research. We were honoured to be asked to contribute to their March 2021 edition. You can read the article about us on page 11 here and you’ll find a copy of the text reprinted below.

Can you tell us a bit about your company structure?

The Ideas Alliance is a small team with experience in community engagement, community research, collaborative practices, commissioning, coproduction and health and social care. We have three founding directors and one team member who all run things behind the scenes day-to-day, as well as acting as an umbrella organisation for several community-focused associates. We collaborate in different formations on a project-by-project basis between our core team and associates.

How did this come about?

In 2016 our directors Linda Hutchinson, Helen Sharp and Anna Eaton were all working separately as consultants, mainly in the public and community sectors and across health and care. They noticed a growing movement of people in the UK wanting to transform the way we do things: using collaboration and approaches that focus on people’s strengths, not just their needs. But back then, it felt like most of us didn’t know about each other. Many of us were trying to work in these ways on our own, committed to our convictions but without any expert support. Co-production, collaboration, strengths-based thinking – all those approaches which will transform the way we work in the public sector, are scary and messy and often fly in the face of our structured, strategic and risk-averse leadership. We wanted to create a place where like-minded people doing similar work could feel supported and championed. Our mottos from the start have been ‘collaborate, don’t compete’ and ‘we will help you to be brave’. Having worked as lone consultants ourselves, we valued our freedom and flexibility but wanted to provide an umbrella organisation to bring people together. Over the last few years our team has grown, and so has the movement to make this way of working the norm and not the exception. We are very lucky to be a part of that movement, and we are very proud of our growing network of people who work in a similar way.

What are the benefits for the company of using this structure?

We have input from a wide range of people, expertise and perspectives. It helps us offer more to partners who are interested in working with us, and creates a team atmosphere without tying people down. It also means we are all accountable in different ways for our work, spreading the responsibility and acknowledging what different people bring to the table.

What are the benefits for the researchers working at the company?

We’ve been told by our associates that the benefits of working with us are having a team atmosphere without being tied in; access to great project work; and opportunities to connect to other like-minded people and to learn together through our network. It can be frightening to manage a project on your own without people to have by your side. Our associates tell us they feel part of something bigger when working with us, and they don’t have to take everything on themselves. We also provide the experience of a different way of working which is trust-based and supportive. It’s a flexible way of working which we are trying to get others to adopt. So, hopefully, it gives our associates and others faith that it is possible!

What are the challenges for the company of using this structure?

We want people we work with to feel they belong while leaving them the freedom to pursue their own development. It can feel like a challenge to maintain this balance sometimes and to keep finding ways to bring everyone together, check in as regularly as needed, and support people working remotely. We try to make it as nice and easy to work with us as possible – aiming for minimal paperwork, always paying quickly and having fun.

What are the challenges for researchers working at the company?

Similar to the challenges faced by the company, the challenges for researchers are also in finding the balance of standardised ways of working, ways to connect and check in, alongside the freedom to do things their own way and the flexibility to fit working together around life and other projects. Sometimes things can feel a little chaotic when they get busy!

What advice would you give to someone considering structuring their research organisation this way?

Trust the people you work with and know that you don’t have to do everything – that is what collaboration is all about. Focusing on creating a strong base/ organisation helps support others to do great work. Finally, and probably most importantly, decide what your values are and try to instil them in all you do.

This article was originally published in Research Matters March 2021 edition, by the Social Research Association.

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