The Dark Side of “Innovative” Teams

Interdisciplinary teams have for a long time been considered ideal for creativity and innovation. Pull the engineer, the business guy, the “artsy” kid, and the humanities student, and all of the sudden they will start to come up with the most creative ideas. Nothing wrong with that, but having worked with that array of students, and currently working with a similar broad spectrum of people in my internship, I’ve come to realize that putting these groups of people in the same room may very well temper innovation if not handled properly.

The issue with interdisciplinary teams is that it is hard to work together, it is really hard. There is not a common language, people come in with the believe that their line of expertise is the most important, most decisive to the success of the project, and with all honesty, nobody really understand the other people in the team and their thought processes. In the context of a startup, for example, it is important that this interdiscipline exists, but what else is necessary to make these teams work? You need first very diverse, well-rounded individuals, a common language and vision, and equal commitment and availability to the specific project.

  1. Well-rounded individuals. Customer empathy is important, but teammate empathy may be equally important in startups. Ideally you would have a product manager that has coding experience, that has taken leadership and strategic roles, with marketing knowledge, and have taken cooking classes. It is this level of diversity that starts to create empathy for the members of the team, because she knows how the engineer thinks, how the marketer thinks, and how the CEO thinks.
  2. Common language and vision. Now that you have all of the diverse members together you need them to speak the same language so they can communicate in the first place. For some innovation may be seen as product development, for others it is marketing or media creativity, and for others is creating a business. This reminds me of the story of the six blind men and the elephant. The first man touched the tail of the elephant and said that the object in front of them was a rope, the second man touched a leg and was convinced that it was a different kind of tree, and so on. None could see the big picture and work towards the same goal. Call it a process, a vision, or a goal, it is important that words and motivations are aligned for everybody in the team.
  3. Commitment and availability. I’ve been learning this the hard way. It is not enough with having the right people with the right vision speaking the same language if they do not even have the time to dedicate themselves to the project. This is especially a problem at large corporations where individuals are already part of a different team, where they already have other responsibilities, and allocation of time is predicated on bureaucracy. True lean and fast experimentations and business ideas are a function of the time its members can dedicate to the specific project.

These three elements pose an important issue to both startups and established companies, how do I ensure I have these three points present in my organization? For startups it may mean that would need to be on the lookout for individuals that already have these three components: well-rounded, already speak the language, and are committed and available. For established organizations perhaps it may mean that those elements need to be created, or recreated within the company: rotating programs, or shadowing others, reverse mentoring, etc; trainings on speaking the same language or on a specific common language (Clayton Christensen illustrates this with his Intel experience); and even allowing employees to more independently manage their time and the allocation of their time to innovative ideas.

Salvael Estrada, Daniel Falabella