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Strengthening Interdisciplinary Teams

I have worked in both interdisciplinary teams where everyone’s skills and knowledge were fused into new technologies, and I’ve also worked in multidisciplinary teams where everyone carried out their specialist jobs whilst working towards a common goal. In both settings, our teams tried and failed with different engagement styles because of our education and training gave us different perspectives, and our personalities and modes of interaction were so different. Today, I want to share one specific strategy that worked well in increasing positive interdisciplinary collaboration.

Establish a case study or group project that is not specifically client-related, but which will benefit fusion of knowledge. Many workplaces are so hectic that people barely have time to spend time with their colleagues. In one team, we found people were producing great things working alone in their offices, but this was not benefiting the group as few people had visibility of what others were doing. Our manager set aside time for our team to work on a large project over a period of two years. They allocated individual time for us to prepare for our meetings (around an hour a week) as well as additional group time for us to meet (two hours once a fortnight). I have never learned so much in my life. This was a clever way to force individuals to learn to work intimately with one another, and work through individual communication issues and to overcome personality clashes in a controlled environment.

At the beginning, the group meetings didn’t seem to get far: everyone had different ideas of how to define our case study, what we should focus on, what methods to use, and so on. At various times, we all felt impatient because in a room full of experts, everyone thought their ideas were not being fully valued. Having that set time each fortnight and being given a brief recurring window each week to think about our individual contributions ended up being a clever way to work through our different modes of communication. As I noted, the project was not delivered to a particular client, but the act of routinely discussing ideas led to many future collaborations across disciplines. This didn’t end all personality and communication problems, but it was an impressive way to open our team up to seeing one another in a new light.

Small businesses and organisations that are restricted due to budgets and time. Working on a non-client related project may be completely out of the question.

Other strategies that my previous teams adopted have included establishing reading groups where each team member brings in an article or book that is relevant to their field so that we can discuss our different perspectives. Presentation lunches, where team members are encouraged (though not obligated) to have lunch together while different people present their ideas is also an excellent way to allow different personality types to take the spotlight, focused on something that they find meaningful. The bottom line is create the time and space for team members to learn to work together in innovative ways, to exchange ideas.

Personality testing can boost understanding preferred communication styles. The key is to remind staff that communication becomes stagnant when we box individuals into rigid categories. Personality types provide a useful narrative only when they encourage people to empathise and see other points of view. Be on the lookout for negative or maladaptive practices related to personality categorisations. When they stop serving a useful purpose, it’s time to revisit the Myers-Briggs test (or whichever model you’re using), and asking yourself and your team: what can we relearn about our personality differences to help us better interact and cooperate? Sit down over lunch or a cup of tea and start to listen to one another again. Bring in an expert or facilitator to lead a discussion on personality and communication, start a collaborative project or make the time to simply talk. Even if you can only spare an hour every now and again, get into the habit of setting aside time for your team to work at its communication.

Interaction and collaboration, like personalities, are never a set thing. They need to be tended to routinely.

If you have ideas on how to improve positive communication in particular team settings, let us know below!

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