It’s been 20 years, but I can still hear my class groan when our Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business professor announced our full course grade was based on a group project — one that required an interdisciplinary approach. The greatest challenge that semester at the University of Pittsburgh was not the volume and complexity of the Harvard Business Journal case study analyses, but rather creating and coordinating a diverse team of talented students to insightfully tackle the job.
What I didn’t know then, but have come to respect now, is how exceptional and career changing that assignment would be.
Today’s fast-paced work environments, and the complex, dynamic systems and policies that influence them, require an increased level of appreciation for the value of the interdisciplinary team. This model, comprising of individuals from unique and varying fields of expertise, is often used in new product development, improving health and safety outcomes, and reconfiguring service delivery.
Management of an interdisciplinary team can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your career. It allows for an unprecedented level of professional learning, camaraderie and career-building opportunities.
It can also become your most frustrating professional encounter, so it is important to have a discerning eye for talent, a sharp focus on metrics and a humble, agile managerial approach. Here are three helpful reminders.
It is vital to establish a clearly articulated team purpose in talent recruitment.
Team members need to demonstrate confidence in the process and the team concept, while recruits must possess and be known for their competencies in their field. Their commitment to seeing the project through must be apparent.
Be a humble expert
It is important to remember that there is no greater privilege than to coalesce and manage a team of experts. The intellectual capital of an interdisciplinary team is invaluable. Treat it as such.
Identify opportunities to build interdependence and trust among the team. Establish team values. Listen, ask questions and solicit solutions from the team when problems arise. Understand the communications needs of your team and individual members.
This is your charge. There is no getting around it if you want to be successful. The team purpose that has been articulated must directly relate to a refined outcome statement for the project.
An interdisciplinary team leader must compartmentalize the larger picture, steer the team and work with its members to illustrate how the many facets of a problem and their respective fields of expertise fit together to form a solution.
Move your team forward by developing team processes, timetables and milestones; solicit input; and understand what circumstances dictate a course change. These methods can anchor your team through unforeseen challenges.
The potential of the interdisciplinary team model to solve problems and create opportunities is only limited by how well the team is managed.
Individually we are only as strong as our own performance. When we respectfully marshal the brilliance of our colleagues toward a single goal, the power of collective wisdom can yield superior outcomes.
Samantha Balbier is the executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership of the Forbes Funds, a supporting organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation. Samantha has been recognized for innovative and collaborative approaches in public policy education and reform. She has lead and managed several award-winning initiatives created through an interdisciplinary model approach including the Pennsylvania ECE Healthy & Green Initiative, an environmental health effort of five state departments.