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Mission interview

Interview with Wendy Aartsen, Hands4Grants by Chris Shilling, Florinpartnership


Why did you set up Hands4Grants?

I’m convinced that collaborative projects in Computer and Life Sciences could run more efficiently, if the team is fostered well enough. By integrating and collaborating better you can reach a much higher impact.


Which projects do you mean?

Public-private partnerships in Computer and Life sciences


Do you work on projects just in Netherlands or more broadly?

I’ve got experience in a range of European countries. I’ve worked as the scientific officer for FP6, FP7 and IMI projects, and participated as a consortium moderator in Horizon 2020. 


What areas of life sciences?

Data Science, Biotechnology, Biology and Pharmaceutical Industry, specifically in building enabling platforms. My own scientific background is in Pharmacology, Neurobiology and Genetics.


What do you mean by building ‘platforms’?

For DDMoRe, it’s been building a collaborative platform based on new standards. For others it’s been building a big library and collaboration service. For example, a knowledge platform for Food For Thought – how food could influence the way one develops dementia. The project on genetics was a screening project – it was a service offering screens for compounds that could cause DNA damage, accelerating the ageing process.


What do you think are the Critical Success Factors for collaborative projects?

First and foremost, finding partners with a common interest.


It’s important to build the relationships with individuals within a project, not just with a company or institution. You can get so much more out of these projects by committing to the project and actively engaging, both for the outcomes of the project and your personal growth. I’ve seen many times that people who are sent by their company/organisation to participate in the project don’t get much out of it and don’t contribute much, due to a lack of motivation.


Openness is important – structured, transparent communication built on trust across all project participants. By making the drivers for each of the participants explicit, being interested in what everyone can contribute and exploring their interest, at the beginning of the project, with open questions builds openness, and this leads to trust as the project delivers. Linked to trust is the absence of micromanagement, which is often holding back project progress and impairs motivation.


From my experience, having a not too hierarchical structure is also important. Generating self-supporting teams that are empowered with clear objectives, which are well monitored and motivated, is my favorite way of working.


How do you balance this with the limited funding available?

The Description of Work (DoW) shouldn’t be set in stone – you shouldn’t be afraid of amendments if the team is going in a profitable, interesting direction. Too often the DoW is seen as a ‘must-do’, but if you have a good relationship with the EU Commission, IMI-JU or any other funding party, you can share the thinking on why you want to go in a new direction.


Some people say “If you have too many amendments, your project management is bad”, that I think is a misunderstanding. You cannot predict everything in a project and regular course corrections show positive control.


From a project management perspective, you need to be able to adapt and switch quickly between tasks. You have to be open-minded to the flow of the project and listen to the needs. If that requires 10 amendments in the course of a project, then that’s the way it is.


This is why I have set up Hands4Grants – the position of a Project Manager in collaborative projects is to facilitate, not to dominate. You give the team the right tools to be able to decide for themselves how best to proceed. As a coordinator, stepping into an collaborative project should be like stepping into a warm bath. You should feel confident, comfortable and supported; not because you necessarily know exactly what each member of the team is doing, but you feel confident in managing the process.


How does Hands4Grants create that environment?

I do a lot of preparation on the tools that a consortium/team is going to use; templates, collaborative canvas, SWOT analysis, collaborative platforms and surveys. Putting the right people together in a group, organising and facilitating meetings, trying to trigger the group with the right questions. It’s important to lead by example – you have an idea and you work it up. Most people find it hard to work from a blank sheet of paper, so by preparing a starting draft example it helps people think and create. It gives people a framework for contribution to inspire creativity – it even works with a silly example, where people think that the example is so stupid that they are driven to come up with a better idea.


Having a scientific background, I understand that science is ego-driven. If you’re not interested in being first, you won’t succeed. As a project manager you have to shift to a different mind-set – you’re there to serve people, to understand how people think and how they work in their field, to help them shine in their contribution. This means you need to be ‘style flexible’ – you have to modify your approach and listen carefully – understand the stakeholders, the needs and fears of the team.


You also have to check regularly that all team members are comfortable with how the team is working. I use the PERFORM model to monitor how the team feels, providing an opportunity to make changes to optimise the productivity of the team. Occasionally you have to have discussions about how the team works, not just what the team is doing – this isn’t always easy for a science-based team. The PERFORM model is close to a situational leadership model for self-supporting teams.


How is Hands4Grants structured?

Hands4Grants provides services through a network of consultants, from the network a team of consultants will be built to serve your project and team. This means that you get the right skills for the specific tasks you need.  


Trust and openness are important drivers for the consultants; by working together in a team we hand-pick the full range of skills needed for any situation – it also means we learn a lot about a project by having different perspectives and experience profiles looking at the needs of a project. We provide flexibility for projects, based on the specialist skills required at the specific phase of a project – it’s never one person trying to cover all bases. We support a project in the way it needs to be supported, rather than just applying a standard template. As a consequence, you also do not pay for services you don't need. 


The key to all of this is flexibility – the coordinator should be in control and able to make changes if the support isn’t what you need. If the relationship is not working, you need to be able to change people to provide support that works for them. A project has different stages, and each of those require different skill sets – the Hands4Grants approach enables a project to have the right people in place to facilitate progress at each project stage.