Making the whole greater than the sum of the parts

Multidisciplinary working

My team has a rich set of skills. We draw both from the established disciplines like business analysis and project management but also from the newer disciplines of user research, content strategy and service design. We have a design principle that commits us to being agile first (you can read more about our design principles here) and we are committed to working as collaboratively as possible.

One our ambitions – or perhaps more accurately at the moment part of my vision for the future – is that we develop our skills as a multidisciplinary team where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. This post is about me unpacking what I mean a bit. As ever its intended as the start of a discussion not the last word.

I believe we are living in a complex world where fast moving problems and opportunities need us to work in teams in an agile and iterative way. We can’t afford not to have different perspectives and skills working closely – this is not a world where we can think of work as something that is done on a linear assembly line – we need to work closely together and draw all of the different skills and knowledge at our disposal. In many ways this post is the companion to the one I wrote about my anathema to dogma and the fact that we need to take the time to appreciate other people’s perspective.

I am also keen that we are wrestling with the question of what agile approaches look like at scale – and this is as much as putting agile thinking into more structured approaches as it is about looking at how agile approaches can meet the organisational needs which are served in big programme structures (more on this in this post of the magical thinking of big programmes). I think the answers come in stronger multidisciplinary practices that been together different ways of working.

But multidisciplinary work across discipline boundaries is hard. Working with capabilities which are adjacent to your own is not too difficult (sociologists and anthropologists at least know what they are arguing about) but working with capabilities with whom you have no common language or provenance is difficult. Your world views are different, your frames are different, your problem solving approaches are different and you almost certainly have a different view on planning and organisation – on approach – of any particular piece of work.

These differences at worst turn into a struggle for dominance of the work – a struggle for power – or at best turn into an endless discussion about where to get started and how to create a shared approach.

Action research (which is my research approach) deals with this by creating a conceptual model for the scope of the enquiry which is borne from a multidisciplinary literature review. An action research approach will first identify the question and then look to the relevant literature to develop that model. Its inherently iterative and pragmatic at the same time as being rigorous in terms of ensuring the integrity of the information gathering and sense making that flows from that conceptual model. An action researcher is always asking if their emergent world view and conceptual model fits the reality of what they are seeing.

It seems a bit excessive to create a conceptual model and exploring each others world EVERY time you take on a new project – but until you have a sense of the where other professional disciplines are coming from its important to take a moment and spend some time making sure that you understand where everyone is coming from so that you can apply the best version of the team to the work at hand.

Well intentioned and open minded people will find a way through this but I think there are ways in which we can make it easier:

  • Language: Being really aware of the fact that different disciplines use the same word in different ways and that la gauge is part of professional identity and needs to be contextualised and understood
  • No Dogma: Be open minded to learning about other approaches and be prepared to take this onboard and adapt your way of working
  • Literature review: Take the time to learn; either about the other disciplines in the team of about other attempts to solve similar problems
  • Storytelling: Don’t retreat into your own language; use storytelling to contextualise what you are trying to communicate so that you can show and not tell what you think needs doing
  • Respect: Assume other people know what they are talking about – have respect for other peoples views and their ways of doing things
  • Honesty: Say when you don’t agree and say when you don’t understand. Be honest when something is making you uncomfortable but try not to be defensive
  • Boundaries: Understand when you are straying into someone’s professional identity and not just talking about the margins of what they do

It is of course possible for a multidisciplinary team to get work done without thinking about all of this but in those cases it’s because the people get on – not because they are blending their practice. If you want a team to hum along professionally you need to put the work in.

I think its more than worth the effort – interesting problems need diverse teams.

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