Getting multidisciplinary teams right.

It's hard to find a company that does not embrace multidisciplinary project teams these days. The idea is that since we all have our functional blindspots, a team that brings disparate disciplines together will have all the potential blindspots and pitfalls covered.  While there may be more team disagreements, they will happen earlier in the process, resulting in less rework and greater efficiency overall.

Then why is it that some multidisciplinary teams fail, while others appear to work magic? What I've experienced myself and in working with client teams is that in an effort to ensure diversity of functional discipline on a team, organizations fail to acknowledge that there are some attributes that a team must share in order to accomplish their goals.  These attributes are not based on functional discipline, but are based on how people think, work, and interact.  Does a person do well with ambiguous problems, or do they prefer concrete goals and information?  And what type of thinking will best suit the needs of the project?  Let's take an example. For simplicity, we'll just discuss the engineering and marketing disciplines.

Project A:  The goal of this project is to launch an upgrade to an existing product. The current product does well in the market, yet it has been acknowledged that some improvements could be made. 

A good marketing person for this project will know the current market well.  They will be comfortable dealing with quantitative data about exactly what features need to be improved. They will also know price sensitivity of the consumers, how current competition will likely react, how an improvement will enhance distribution and retail relationships, what the advertising message should focus on, etc.

A good engineer for this project will know the current technology and processes well.  They will know how to tweak current processes, and how to modify desired features to be made on existing production lines, with minimal upgrades.  They may even have figured out a way to offer an improved product while cutting current costs.  They will know what can be done to hit the launch deadline, and have a plan to continue upgrades in future launches. There will be clear boundaries between their work and the marketing person's work.

Project B:  The goal of this project is to come up with an industry breakthrough that will ensure the company's market leadership in the next five years. It needs to reinforce the company's brand image with consumers, yet make current product competition irrelevant.

A good marketing person for this project will understand why the current market is what it is. They will know what fundamental needs their products satisfy for consumers, and they will want to understand what other product categories also satisfy these needs.  They will shun current industry assumptions about how the market should work, and they will think in terms of new business models, and how to change the current competitive environment. They will focus not on defining product solutions, but on clearly defining the success of a new offering.

A good engineer for this project will understand the needs that different technologies can satisfy.  They will love manipulating technologies to satisfy new needs.  They will not want to be asked to figure out how to make a specific product, but will want to be asked to devise a way to satisfy criteria that is based on both consumer and business needs. They will not want a spec sheet, but they will want to understand the needs first-hand.  The boundaries of their work will often be blurred, blending with the marketing person's work.

Most companies do not define the intended scope of a project as clearly as I have defined here.  Since they typically lack the tools or vocabulary to define the skills required to function well within different project scopes, team members may come to the table with goals that may be at cross purposes.  Imagine the marketing person in project A, being asked to achieve the goals of project B?  Or vice versa?  As they used to say about the old sit-com plots - We can be sure that mayhem will ensue!

The next time you are on a multidisciplinary team at your company, think about the scope of the project you are working on.  Has it been defined? Is everyone on the team suited to working in the way that is needed for that scope?  What have your experiences been?  I'd love to hear how others have tackled these issues.