I spent the first week of January in Victoria, B.C., at a conference that brought together leaders from two very different sectors: social change agents and leaders in the personal development field. Our goal was to develop a framework for a personal development program to support social change agents and activists in their work. On that first evening there was a lot of goodwill, but just as much skepticism. I had my doubts that the personal development facilitators who represented very diverse models, could develop a common framework. Likewise, the social change agents had different social agendas and diverse political analyses. And between the two approaches to change, the personal and the political, was a lengthy, thorny relationship and strikingly different perspectives and worldviews.
And yet, in spite of these gaps in frameworks, language, and perspective, the conference was a great success. There was an astounding capacity to listen, learn, share ideas, and grapple with and find meaning in the differences that arose. Over the course of the four days, an appreciation of each othersâ?? knowledge and experience began to grow, and a sense of trust and teamwork organically emerged.
On the plane ride home, exhausted by happy, I began to wonder why it came together so well. And it dawned on me that this was not the first interdisciplinary and cross-modality project I’ve consulted on. In fact, the last four major projects I’ve worked on all involved extensive, interdisciplinary engagement. Was that a coincidence, I wondered, or is there something about interdisciplinary teamwork that appeals to me? This got me thinking more about interdisciplinary teamwork, and working with stakeholders across disciplines and industries. What kind of teamwork is needed? Is a different kind of teamwork required? What are the particular challenges and unique approaches needed to make interdisciplinary teamwork successful?
It’s worth thinking about because the most pressing problems facing society today are far too complex and interconnected to be solved within one discipline or framework. They require interdisciplinary approaches that integrate several perspectives.
But what is meant by interdisciplinary? Both multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary teamwork involves knowledge from diverse disciplines; each stakeholder adds their specialized piece, creating a mosaic-like solution for a problem. But the borders between the disciplines remain intact. In contrast, interdisciplinary, while also involving contributors from different disciplines, means creating new knowledge in the service of solving a common goal. If a cross-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary team is like a smorgasbord, in which different dishes are offered as one meal, an interdisciplinary team takes ingredients from each of the other dishes, and combines them to create an entirely new dish.
Most of the literature on teamwork assumes some degree of shared method, framework, language, culture, or paradigm among team members. But an on an interdisciplinary team, there can be no guarantee that members share anything beyond the goal of the project itself. Not even a set of teamwork skills or work method. Thus, to be successful, even before teamwork skills or work methods come into play, there are essential attitudes that help make the work successful. Here are the 5 which I think are most vital:
- Be excited about learning. To work in an interdisciplinary team, you have to have to really like learning new things. Think of it like traveling. You have to like trying new foods, and not mind the occasional discomfort of cultural difference. Being a learner means being flexible, curious, open, and adventurous. It means allowing yourself to be the beginner at times, to ask questions, and learn from others. You may be a Diva in your own domain, but they are a Diva in theirs. So sometimes, you will be just another Joe.
- Bring the end user into the room. Without a shared framework for understanding the problem, or methods for approaching it, the many possible choices can become overwhelming. In those moments, allow the needs of your ultimate end user to direct and determine the path you choose. There will be lots of good ideas, theories, and approaches, but ultimately, choosing one depends on the needs of the future clients, user, or audience. This creates a benchmark or standard against which to weigh possible choices. Be guided by the question: What is the best choice, the one that is most consistent with the needs and values of our end user?
- Be multilingual. Though at some point, in order to function, you will have to be exact in your definitions of things, at the beginning, allow for and embrace the inevitable Tower of Babel. Everyone will have their own concepts and frameworks, and even if they point to the same thing, there will be different ways of expressing it. If you move too quickly towards a common set of terms, you might miss important nuances and differences, and most importantly, the learning and deepening of knowledge that comes from the clash of representational systems. How we name and frame things is a reflection of our perceptions, and can offer valuable insights into the nature of things. So, allow for some confusion, and give space for members to ask questions and hash out definitions until a kind of pidgin language or lingua franca naturally emerges.
- Be pragmatic, not doctrinaire. Chances are, you are on the team for a set of skills, expertise, or content, but unless you are chosen as a leader, it’s not your explanatory framework or paradigm that brings you there. It can be challenging to discuss a problem from a point of view that isn’t naturally yours. But that’s not up for debate. For instance, in my work helping to design a Crisis Intervention Training program for the Portland Police, I had to work within a mental health framework based in neuroscience. While I appreciated the view, my own framework for understanding mental health included more relativistic and teleological assumptions. But I wasn’t there to expound on my framework of mental health. I was there as an expert on crisis communication and intervention. Getting into lengthy debates about the different paradigms around mental health used up precious time, and I had to go along with the framework chosen, which was the most utilitarian for our ultimate end user. I am very attached to my worldview, as we all are, but to use it in the service of a larger goal, model it, don’t preach it.
- It’s a three-legged race. Remember the three-legged race? Two people stand next to each other and tie their inside legs together and race other teams to the finish line. Your fates are tied together. Thus, your outstanding running ability alone won’t help you win. You have to work with your partner. If you’re faster, you may have to push the other to go faster. But you also might have to slow down so you can synchronize your pace. My new friends from the conference, Carole Levy and Jean Pierre Guilhaume from Learning as Leadership, have an expression, to Make the Other Good. I’m not yet sure I’m using it correctly, but it expresses the idea that to succeed, we have to bring out the best in others. This might involve encouraging others, suspending judgment, or even asking tough questions and challenging someone. We’re in a partnership and our success is tied to others. It’s up to each one of us to make the other great.