Now that the year-long MERGE Greenwich project has ended, culminating in a the presentation of its findings and recommendations on 17 July and a well received 85-page report called Autonomous vehicle ride-sharing services: will they make our cities greener, more efficient and more accessible? (see report here), it’s perhaps a good time to reflect on what worked well and what could be improved next time round.

I was asked by my client, Addison Lee, to manage the project and act as co-ordinator for the six members of the consortium who were brought together for their specific areas of expertise. Along with Addison Lee, they were Transport Systems Catapult, DG Cities, Ford, Immense Simulations and TRL – each of them, naturally, with a different culture and character. This is where the ‘EQ’ element of my way of working came to the fore: it was my task to be the ‘glue’ between the team members, to understand their different ways of working and to lay the foundations for a new project culture which worked for everyone and would achieve our joint goal efficiently and on time.

Each member of the consortium had a core team of two or three working on the project, plus additional experts brought in at times – so I guess I was in contact with up to 30 people at any one time. It often felt like herding cats . . . albeit the friendliest and most motivated cats one could wish for!

With such a large team and the need for such a high degree of collaboration, it was critical to make time for face to face meetings. Monthly workshops with the core team of about 15 people, hosted by each consortium member in turn, were an essential part of the communication process. These meetings helped to nurture relationships by providing the personal contact which is so important in building a solid team. Regular Monday morning conference calls also provided continuity so that everyone knew what everyone else was doing, what progress they were making and what support they needed from each other.

On the flip side, ‘an overused strength can become a weakness’, as they say. That was certainly true of our intended communication channels. At the beginning of the project I introduced a one-page weekly status report, designed to provide me with a complete picture of how each work package was progressing before the Monday conference call. However, what should have been a five-minute job became a burden and, thanks to a healthy feedback session, we dropped it.

Another key lesson learnt related to language. One thing we should have sorted out at the very beginning was a lexicon of terminology which we would all use; it wasn’t until half way through that we recognised the need for common terms. For example, one consortium member would talk about ‘assumptions’, another about ’parameters’, and a third about ’levers’ – but all actually meant the same thing. Whilst this may seem like a trivial point in isolation, I’m convinced we wasted precious time, and stretched people’s valuable patience, going round in circles because of it.

The MERGE Greenwich consortium would also have benefitted from spending more time, right at the start of the project, understanding exactly who was going to do what. A thorough, ‘sleeves rolled up’ working session to thrash out the nitty gritty detail would have been worth its weight in gold, even if at the time it might have felt painfully tedious to some. Such a session would also have helped me understand what each organisation could and couldn’t do, in order better to co-ordinate tasks which involved more than one consortium member.

So, in summary, my top five tips to myself for next time (or anyone else leading a consortium in the future) are:

  1. Regular contact with all consortium members is key: monthly meetings and weekly calls ensure information is shared and, crucially, relationships develop within the team
  2. Written updates are a burden; save the consortium’s collective time and energy for verbal and face to face updates
  3. Make time for feedback sessions; ‘feedback is a gift’ and the Project Manager should actively invite suggestions, listen to ideas and adapt accordingly
  4. Build a project vocabulary list from day one; this will save time and avoid confusion throughout the project
  5. Invest a significant amount of time up front to understand who’s going to do what and who wants what out of it; this will help everyone do what they need to do efficiently and help the project manager co-ordinate the team’s efforts

As I understand it, there are many examples of consortia, often with fewer members, which have not succeeded for a variety of reasons, so I am incredibly proud that we managed to work so well together from the outset and demonstrate what a truly collaborative effort can achieve. It wasn’t always easy coordinating so many different styles, but we did it! I believe these six organisations, and the 30+ individuals, collaborated in ways they wouldn’t normally contemplate, and the end result of MERGE Greenwich was far greater than the sum of its parts.

I will always be grateful to the whole MERGE Greenwich family for what they taught me, for the support they offered and for the sheer fun we had along the way! Thank you . . . you know who you are.