Leading Interdisciplinary Teams

To access the subject let’s use the mobile phones industry case study. No device in modern history has had the impact on world economy in such a short span of time like the Smartphone.  Many manufacturers of compact cameras, video cameras, tape-recorders, GPS navigators, compasses, fitness and health monitoring systems, music-players, watches, alarm clocks, mini torches – it’s a long list – are experiencing dramatic down-turns in their business because suddenly there is this fast evolving one device does all available to everyone. Event photographers are amongst the hardest hit occupations: Everyone takes along their Smartphone with them to instantly share their snapshots through a variety of media.

Consider the difference in teamwork in the mobile phone industry between five years ago and today. Then, an average team consisted from a more or less homogenous team of engineers working to produce the best phone with some additional features. Today, a Smartphone development team needs to incorporate visionary futurists, astute trend-monitors, nanotechnology experts, psychologists, web specialists, highly versatile programmers, health and well-being specialists, social media specialists, three-D specialists, GPS integration specialist, compact and video cameras integration specialists, marketers… And it’s just the beginning – imagine what Smartphones may be able to perform in ten years.

It’s a whole new ballgame, where team leaders must acquire new skill sets that enable unprecedented forms of adaptive teambuilding; to create work atmospheres and synergies to inspire professionals of very different backgrounds and orientations situated in different parts of the globe to communicate, collaborate and innovate in order to maintain the company’s franchise in an ultra-competitive marketplace, where game-changing ideas and technologies keep appearing out of thin air.

While most team leaders reading this may not be running projects of this magnitude, this case study nevertheless highlights the direction and trends of how 21st century teamwork is evolving.

The Key
How does a team leader go about building teams with across the board professional – and cultural – diversity being the name of the game? The big clue lies in the human dimension. Before one is a technician, a scientist, an engineer, a futurist, a psychologist or a marketer he or she is a human being. And human beings share certain fundamental common denominators regardless of difference in background or occupation.

By intelligently integrating these common denominators into the teambuilding process, your task as a team leader is to learn how to create work environments that unify a rapid-response team at a number of different levels all at the same time. And the best way to do that is by incorporating face to face meetings, as even modern video conferencing technologies cannot replace a circumstance where people meet each other in person.

The teambuilding processes need to incoporate four core elements:

1. Connecting At Human Level
This is the all important human level where people get to know each other, where deeper levels of radical trust are built and people’s natural interest in each other’s story is given space and opportunity. When people connect at deeper levels, where new friendships are forged, their willingness to connect and share is vastly greater. The Weizmann Institute in Israel is known throughout the scientific world for its consistent cutting edge R&D that is achieved with amazingly meager budgets. A research that was conducted to find out its ‘secret’ concluded that much of it lies in the informal settings of how its people interact, share and collaborate. No closed doors, (mostly) no closed people, where scientists of different disciplines are always ready and willing to share their knowledge and experience with their compatriots, thus often saving each other what would otherwise require anything up to years worth of labour. Creating work atmospheres that support and encourage the natural desire of people to work together, share and exchange is one of leadership’s primary tasks upon which business empires are built and maintained.

2. Sharing Challenges
Connect for a moment to a conversation where someone was telling you the story of their struggle, how they devise ways, conjure new ideas and innovate to win through challenges both at human and technical levels. Was it not a privileged, captivating experience? Being exposed to stories of how people handle struggles and challenges is hugely empowering especially when it happens in scenarios of a shared endeavour, often triggering the listeners into their own new-think and innovation.

3. Sharing Ideas and Perspectives
Sharing the collective intelligence that is present in the team is a natural follow-though of 1 and 2 above. When an interdisciplinary team works together in the right settings, cross fertilization often leads to frame-breaking ideas and product development catalysts. I recently spoke to a distinguished micro-biologist who was describing how he and the team he is leading were inspired into a research breakthrough following ideas sharing sessions with mathematicians researching natural patterns and sequences. Often the trigger to a radical breakthrough in one domain appears from the most unlikely direction. In today’s world of exponentially increasing complexity, knowledge sharing and collaboratrion is the name of the game. The wisdom of leadership is to know how to bring together top talent from different disciplines to facilitate exchanges that lead to game-changing ideas, discoveries and innovations. “The sum of the whole is greater than that of the individual parts”.

4. Agreeing to the Vision and Objectives
In my work over the years with mission critical teams I keep encountering the curious phenomenon of the degree to which more often than not, team members are unclear or uncertain about what is expected of them.

The reason: Lack of clear communication with and from the leadership/management. This even happens in teams that get on well. In a recent team-building session senior project leaders were describing to the CEO their lack of clarity in a way that was quite surprising to all: Because of the extreme pressure and stress factors present in the day to day operations they never got to properly discuss and agree to their top priorities and time-horizons.

Multi-Tasking = The Sum Of The Whole Is Lesser…
Then there is the multi tasking mania. The source of multi-tasking is the amazing natural versatility of the human design. The wisdom is to deploy this wonderful quality wisely and not foolishly. Multi-tasking is responsible for attention deficit syndromes, energy drainage and subsequent stress factors that derail highly talented executives from pioneering needed breakthroughs and delivering quality and high performance where it is most needed. Your task as a leader: To help those you are leading to set and agree on clear objectives and prioritise in ways that delivers in good time the most important outcomes.

So, get them together and spend enough time, if needed employing the services of an external facilitator, to plan those sessions thoroughly and meticulously – an investment that will yield multiple returns.

David Gommé
World Copyright 2011 © David Gommé

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