Professional identities vs. building cross-disciplinary skills

In R&D teams cross-disciplinarity is the key to success. The best new things are invented in-between domains, by lending, re-using, mixing and matching validated operating models and ideas from another discipline. But what skills should you have in person and on what task should you collaborate with cross-disciplinary expertise?

At the team level the professional expert has two ways to learn more: deepen the domain specific skills or diverge to learn new skills. In R&D teams the best composition is a small team made by matching experts from various disciplines e.g. from technology (T), design (D), and business (B). To give an example we could consider that tech design and business are expertise of persons A, B and C. The combinations could be AT, BD, CB.

Here we have Andy who knows tech (AT). Andy has Claire working with business case (CB) and Bob who is a designer by virtue (BD). They all know their stuff and work efficiently on solo. They are also collaborative and nice people in person. There comes the 3 month project and they plan, execute and deliver like professionals do. But in their real life they like to learn new things too. If Andy would like to learn business he would need to listen carefully what Claire is saying and doing. But in a team composition, Andy is the tech-guy and would not be the best fit for an AB role. So what should Andy do in terms of professional development and to maximize the learning value in a project? On short term he should dig deeper into tech and stay in the specialist role that he has crafted for himself. He is prepared for the interdisciplinary team work, trusting that relationships are more meaningful and bring more results than personal multi-capabilities. He doesn’t believe in superheroes either. In the next project Andy is even sharper and more productive and he gets a career flow from project to project as the AT guy to have take care of your tech stuff in the trickiest problems.

From a managerial point of view it may be smart to have Andy, Bob and Claire work together for several projects. If they learn to work together and deliver great value, they will also make a nice profit for the company. But for R&D and innovation, where you need to keep making things differently, they will need to keep moving both intellectually and collaboratively. Each team will eventually form a pattern and get stuck in their way of working. This is why many of us like working in projects: to learn more and do new things (or the same things) with new people.

In the interdisciplinary team working mode the project manager should coach Andy, Claire and Bob ( …we almost forgot about Bob! And he is not even in the picture because he just made the design and thinks it’s cool not to show off.) They should be supported in developing their specific professional skills and have them hand picking to join new teams and extend their professional networks. This way they are able to generate different outcomes from similar project assignments. In the long run also Andy will learn a lot about design and business, but it takes a long time to be self-sufficient in a new skill. I suggest that professional identities should be deepened at the short term and extended in the long term when working in cross-disciplinary R&D projects.