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Techniques for Managing Cross-Disciplinary Teams

By now we all know that the life sciences industry is radically changing

by Mark Lanfear
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For decades we had been comfortable working within rigid boundaries. Within our own little silos, we shared space with like-minded colleagues—people who studied and worked on the same projects. Our ideas flowed between one another but rarely outside the confines of our discipline. We produced very high-quality work. But unfortunately we didn’t necessarily know how to relate to others whose work radically—or even just slightly— differed from ours. 

What changed this dynamic in the life sciences (and continues to inform the evolution of the workplace) was the need to become more efficient. Huge corporations basically needed to be more cost-efficient, and they realized that collaboration and the breaking down of the traditional silos would help them do that. A welcome side effect is that we’re all learning how to collaborate better with colleagues who may approach their disciplines very differently—but who have the same goal. We all want to develop better products and tools, and sharing our knowledge helps us do just that.

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For managers, this new dynamic has been especially challenging. The question remains: How do you effectively manage cross-disciplinary teams? Surprisingly, there is little research out there on how to do this. It’s a relatively new phenomenon, especially in the life sciences. Hopefully, managers are working with team members who are competent and intelligent in their approach to their daily jobs. But getting them to work together effortlessly and synergistically toward the same goal is nevertheless a difficult task.

Merely bringing everyone together on a project isn’t necessarily going to do the trick. Meaningful cross-functional connections must be made. True collaboration may arise organically and in surprising ways with no plan. But people who are used to working in formerly isolated departments may not know how to adapt at all, leaving group dynamics on a cross-disciplinary project open to negativity and stifling knowledge flow.

In this situation, managers must take lessons from the general playbook for all new workplaces that are being informed by a need to work in a more cross-disciplinary mode. It is critical, for instance, for managers themselves to start thinking in a more interdisciplinary fashion. This involves knowing that different perspectives on a single project are the key to inspiring new ideas. A so-called “common front” of different perspectives from team members will most certainly take a project to a higher level. And if managers want their team to think in a more interdisciplinary way, they must first be willing to do it themselves.

Also important is for a manager to be an effective “enabler” of cross-disciplinary work. It’s not enough to simply put ten experts in a room and expect them to spontaneously work together toward a goal. Communication is key, keeping the big picture in mind and letting the team know throughout the course of the project that it is critical to work together and share ideas. Be sure that everyone understands the cross-disciplinary nature of the project—and that they are no longer working “separately” but together. Make sure they know how the work of the other team members may affect their own. And make sure they know the importance of this new type of interaction between their colleagues.

It may seem as though a spirit of working together would happen naturally, but the manager of a project must actually take deliberate steps toward this goal, especially with professionals who are so used to working on their own. The old way of working in silos is clearly gone. The sooner managers are able to effectively lead cross-disciplinary teams, the sooner the work that we all do could become more efficient, dynamic, and ultimately of higher quality.