Beyond Bureaucracy: Streamlining Research Organisations with Shared Ambition

The Core Challenge Facing Research Organisations

In my observations of Australian research organisations I've noticed a recurring problem that undermines their potential far more than any issue of funding, governance, or engagement with industry. The most significant hurdles aren't tied to their impact, research excellence, or rankings.

It lies in something much more fundamental: a lack of shared organisational ambition.

Research institutions, by their nature, operate in a highly decentralised way when it comes to setting their research agenda. This is largely a consequence of their funding model, which is deeply dependent on individual project grants. Grants are awarded to lead investigators, based on their research proposals. As a result, institutions become aggregates of individual efforts, driven by personal ambitions rather than any deeply unifying goal.

This has profound implications. Despite often sharing core values, such as a desire to contribute positively to society or to be an integral part of a community, researchers tend naturally to work in silos. The selection of research topics is left entirely to the discretion of individual investigators, with little to no alignment with broader institutional goals or collective aspirations.

The consequence of this model is a form of organisational atomisation. The work of individual researchers aggregates up to become the efforts of teams, departments, faculties, and research centres, and often with themes or 'pillars' overlaid. Yet, in the absence of a shared ambition, these all fail to coalesce into a cohesive institutional agenda and remain a collection of small independently moving parts diluting the potential for a unified and impactful research agenda.

This is at the heart of the unrealised potential of the research sector. The lack of institutional ambition—a collective goal that transcends individual projects and personal interests—renders it nearly impossible for research organisations to make a meaningful impact on a larger scale. Without a common direction, the potential for transformative research that addresses the grand challenges of our time remains untapped.

Tackling Organisational 'Sludge'

This also creates a unique challenge in the form of organisational inefficiencies—or organisational 'sludge'. 'Sludge' is one part of the bureaucratic obstacles and inefficiencies that accumulate over time, and is particularly apparent in settings where individual autonomy prevails over a unified organisational ambition.

One of the paradoxical outcomes of an autonomous research environments is the proliferation of processes, systems, and increasing accountability requirements. These mechanisms are often introduced with the intention of forcing uniformity and accountability. However, as the ambitions of individual researchers diverge, these mechanisms proliferate in an attempt to maintain coherence within the organisation. Ironically, rather than streamlining operations, they add friction—'sludge'—that hampers agility, innovation, and the ability to seize opportunities.

One recent example from a client was the case of industry partners preferring to engage with individual researchers rather than the institution itself because of its cumbersome contracting and intellectual property processes. While designed to manage risk and govern collaborations, these processes had become so unwieldy that they deterred potential partnerships.

Another example of 'sludge' was in the form of internal disconnection–members of the client organisation operated so much in silos to the extent of being strangers. I have rarely been so surprised as when the legal, IP, research, and external engagement teams of a client met each other for the first time in my meeting room to get my assistance with the redesign of a research centre! (I politely excused myself and suggested they didn't require my assistance but rather an hour or two alone with each other to nut out the details, which they did in an afternoon.)

Such scenarios not only reflect missed opportunities for efficiency but also suggest the deeper issue of lacking shared purpose and coordination.

The work of Torben Juul Andersen highlights the efficiencies associated with integrating, cross-functional processes in decentralised organisations. Integrative processes serve as a counterbalance to the inefficiencies that naturally arise from high autonomy and decentralisation. The absence of these processes—particularly in my experience, a shared strategic organisational ambition—leads to an accumulation of 'sludge'. This often results from the organisation's attempts to bridge the widening gap between individual ambitions through ever-more complex systems, elaborate processes, and accountability measures.

The Power of Unified Ambition in Research Organisations

Addressing these issues requires a paradigm shift towards cultivating a strong, shared organisational ambition that acts as a unifying force, aligning individual efforts and reducing the need for burdensome administrative processes. By fostering a culture of shared purpose, research organisations can streamline operations, enhance agility, and more effectively leverage their collective capabilities.

This not only improves operational efficiency but also enhances an organisation's ability to engage in meaningful, impactful research. Reducing organisational sludge through shared ambition and strategic integration not only frees up resources but also fosters a more collaborative, innovative, and dynamic research environment. This is not just an ideal but a strategic imperative to significantly amplify the impact of research.

The journey towards greater synergy, however, presents varying degrees of challenge and opportunity across different types of research organisations.

Consider the example of a medical research institute with a specific focus, such as cancer research. It may find it comparatively easier to rally its researchers around a focused mission, such as the prevention of under-researched cancers in Australia (as opposed to, say, a more generic version such as the prevention and treatment of cancer per se). Specialisation enables a clear, common goal, allowing for a more cohesive research effort and potentially accelerating discovery and impact.

Contrast this with a university with a broad and diverse research capability. Here, the challenge of fostering a singular organisational ambition is often seen as greater due to the sheer variety of disciplines and interests. But, it is also precisely diversity that constitutes a unique advantage. A university can leverage its research capabilities to address complex, multifaceted problems that span across social, environmental, business, and health domains. An initiative aimed at greening chemical manufacturing and supply chains, for example, would benefit from the collaborative effort of experts in chemistry, environmental science, economics, health and beyond.

In both contexts, the crux of achieving breakthroughs that exceed the sum of individual projects lies in establishing a higher-order shared ambition. This acts as a north star, guiding the collective efforts of the organisation's individuals towards impactful, holistic solutions to pressing challenges.


To realise a shared organisational ambition, research organisations must cultivate an environment where individual researchers feel aligned with and motivated by a collective goal. This requires not only clear communication of the shared ambition but also mechanisms for collaboration, resource allocation, and recognition that focus people towards this common objective.

What we see is that the benefits of this approach are huge. Beyond the potential for groundbreaking discoveries and innovations, a shared ambition fosters a sense of purpose and community among researchers. It transforms the organisation into a cohesive force for good, capable of tackling problems beyond the reach of individuals. Moreover, by demonstrating a united front and a clear, ambitious mission, research institutions can attract more funding, talent, and partnerships, further amplifying their capacity to make a difference.

This is the very first key to maximising the public benefits of research and unlocking the full potential of research organisations, enabling them to make meaningful, far-reaching contributions to society and the world at large. Once this is locked in, the systems, capabilities and processes that are required to deliver it are a natural extension that can be designed for-purpose, avoiding 'sludge'.