Connecting the big ideas is the big idea


Map of big ideas

This is a post about multidisciplinary working – something which we rely on but don’t often think about.  Multidisciplinary (or cross disciplinary if you are using the language of research or practice) or matrix (of you are using the language of organisational design) are essentially a bunch of experts trying to get something done together.  The opportunity here is on the getting something done that is greater than the sum of the knowledge and skills combined – the risk is that you end up in semantic power struggles that might be intellectually or professionally satisfying but don’t actually achieve much in the real world.

Its an approach which increasingly accepted in the research and funding world (see the Cancer Grand Challenges or the Welcome Trust or the UCL grand challenges) and is native to how a digital product team works (the classic example here is Spotify but you might want to have a look at this piece from me on this as well).  It reflects a lot of innovation thinking and also a lot of creative work (I love the data art that the ODI commissioned for example).

But you can’t just put a load of experts together and expect them to get on – good multidisciplinary working needs thought and facilitation to overcome what I’d name as the four main challenges for multidisciplinary working as being:

  1. Creating a common frame of reference (more on frames of reference here)
  2. Creating a shared language (remember collaboration has two very different definitions)
  3. Forming bonds of professional respect not just ducking the intellectual disagreements for the sake of all getting along socially (another definition of this would be the creation of psychological safety)
  4. Accepting that there is overlap between different disciplines and that being an expert in a thing doesn’t make you THE expert every time that thing is used 

To a great extent this is the art of multidisciplinary working – active interrogation and discussion of blending professional practices together in order to form a strong team.  I was struck by a quote from Isabella Tree in her book Rewilding:

“One advisor described the effort to gain consensus as trying to get frogs in a bucket…..to stretch the analogy all of the frogs came from different ponds, and all had different views about what it meant to be a frond what their pond should look like” (P.151) .

She goes on to reflect that her role, and that of her husband, in the work was to hold the process and make sure that the experts operated well within it.  

The process which I try and hold is action research approach which I see as being about keeping the balance between the two elements that form it.  Too much action without theoretical grounding feels too unstructured, to much research without practical action isn’t grounded enough.  This tension reflects the fact that often its not the ideas which are hard – its the change that is needed to bring them to life which presents the challenge.  I use a lot of design thinking tools and approaches as I think this helps bridge into more digital methods but my underpinning approach is a plan, act, observe, reflect action research cycle.

Action research is not just about integrating methods, its also about integrating ideas and world views into something which is practical and actionable – taking things off the page and into the world.  This feels really relevant to a community setting where the intimacy of a community means that to turn up with too many disconnected theories or strategies risks alienating the people you are trying to work with. The same goes with teams in organisations – you need an organising frame and synthesis if you are going to get stuff done.

Looking at Adur and Worthing, systems thinking, design thinking in different forms, asset based working and person centred thinking are all present in our system as well as the fundamentals of digital in the form of agile and user centred design or simply modern workforce practices around flexibility and matrix teams.  There are also profound ideas around climate change and sustainability with ideas such rewilding and returning biodiversity being front of stage in much of what we do.  The organising form that supports these ideas is the concept of government as a platform and the fact that in all of this we, the small bit of government responsible for this place, are trying to figure out how to create the conditions for our communities to thrive rather than thinking that we are delivering these big ideas in isolation.

I find it exciting to be somewhere where these big ideas are so present but I find myself asking ‘what if the really big idea is connecting the big ideas together?’

When you are working in place – and often at hyperlocal scale – there is a risk of these ideas colliding with each other.  How do you get the balance right between connection/multidisciplinary working and alignment and having a bag of idea bits too wide to be meaningful?  This can be and is managed both with a hefty scepticism of ‘ism’s’ and with an emphasis on action rather than research – we are minded to get stuff done.  But my working hypothesis is that better alignment between the big ideas will bring greater coherence and consistency and with it momentum and so work on this is valuable and worthwhile if we can find a way to make it practical and also accessible to the communities that we seek to coproduce with.  Both person centred design and asset based practice means working with people as they integrate these big ideas for themselves – which is why shared enquiry is core to the community asset mapping work we are doing.

At the moment I am focused on how we bring asset based working, person centred practice and user centred design together.  Like the different definitions of coproduction these ideas are close cousins but are different enough to cause drag in the system if practitioners are not aligned.  

There is another reason why we need to get this multidisciplinary working right.  I call it the archeology of innovation where the risk is that we end up with new big ideas laid on the corpses of the last idea we experimented with.  Multidisciplinary working and the process of framing and synthesis can help innovation and change build on each success and not compete for oxygen.   The integration and cultivation that multidisciplinary work should bring with its opennesses to new ideas should create a regenerative environment – and somewhere in there is a link to creating a more regenerative system.

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