Companies the world over are thinking about what will keep them innovative. I would argue that multidisciplinary teams are integral to achieving a viable innovation model no matter the company format. We see this in Silicon Valley startups. Founders where multiple hats, and lean startup teams must figure out how to deliver the best of design, business and technology together in rapid agile fashion. Even in large corporations, multidisciplinary teams create enormous value when protected in the right way. During my time at Nike, I watched footwear designers, developers and product managers team up in small “triads” always figuring out a new way to make a better product. Usually behind the world’s most innovative companies, there’s usually some form of healthy multidisciplinary teaming.
At the same time, sustaining these teams is not easy. If it were, we’d see them everywhere. The larger the organization, the more specialized their people become. Their pioneering efforts (usually very innovative and multidisciplinary at the start) eventually spawn large businesses that require tons of focus. Roles within those organizations become more tailored toward optimizing and growing existing franchises versus creating new ones. Cost cutting and optimization become par for the course. Over time, it becomes increasingly hard for employees to engage each other across the aisles between departments. Strategists belong in corporate strategy. Designers belong in the design department, and so on. Large companies may choose to offset this dynamic by ring-fencing a small percentage of organization toward innovation while the core business continues its trajectory. The small ring-fenced teams appropriately adopt the moniker of “lab, kitchen, garage, etc."
So … Why are mixed teams important for innovation? … Why can’t we just rely on the lone inventor who will dream up the next big thing? Innovation is about inventing new experiences that evoke desirability, business viability and technical feasibility. Based on the exponential speed at which the world is moving, these elements need to be comprehended faster than ever before, and the ingenuity of teams are required more-so than the individual. Innovation requires the team to bring all types of inspirations and “ingredients” to the table from each person’s unique vantage point. Exposing the team to these inspirations at the same time creates an environment for making intuitive sparks and connections. That’s creativity in its pure essence … the ability to cross pollinate inspirations to create something new. In order to do this well, each teammate within the multidisciplinary team will likely have to work very differently than “how they’ve done it before."
A product manager may have been used to “owning” the product in their past life. A designer may have been used to applying “form” around pre-existing functionality. A technologist may have had the bleak task of figuring out how to “make it work” at the receiving end of a long process. In a multidisciplinary team, the “baggage" of prior convention needs to go. Each teammate has the opportunity to evolve into a "T-shaped" collaborator. By "T-shaped," I mean exercising breadth and depth. It’s important that every team member learn the ability to empathize with different disciplines across the team and connect the dots where appropriate. It’s equally important that each team member feels that they can leverage their deep subject matter expertise to deliver tangible contributions. As stakeholders usually designate a leader to run an innovation project, that leader must act as a servant leader to bring the very best out of the multidisciplinary team. The team owns the product, not the individual … and the leadership should do all they can to enable the team’s success.
The more these teams are enabled, nurtured and protected, the more its participants will shape company culture. That culture might take on many different variations depending on the team and topic, but the underlying foundation will be rooted in mutual trust and respect. In my experience, when that exists, it’s quite inspiring to see what a multidisciplinary team can do. I truly believe this form of collaboration is the currency of where our future innovation will come from in the years ahead.
As in any of my blog posts, these views are my own … but I’d be remiss in not giving credit to the great folks that have inspired this perspective along my career path. Whether you presently work in mixed teams or highly specialized departments, I would love to hear what you think. There are many different perspectives on this topic, and I’m sure we can learn from each other. In many ways, innovation in the future will take a “village.” I hope you enjoyed this post and consider it just another ingredient that helps enable dreams, design and life. Thanks for reading … k.g.b.