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InfoQ Homepage Articles Bridging Silos and Overcoming Collaboration Antipatterns in Multidisciplinary Organisations

Bridging Silos and Overcoming Collaboration Antipatterns in Multidisciplinary Organisations

Key Takeaways

  • Too many organisations are moving towards more fractured working that focuses on specialisms over collaboration
  • Three collaboration antipatterns are: one person across many teams, product vs. engineering wars, and x-led organisations
  • Collaboration antipatterns lead to uneven power distribution and decision making
  • Unchecked, these antipatterns will increase professional protectionism leading to in-team silos, which makes it difficult to solve wicked problems
  • Creating enabling structures, focusing on transdisciplinary teams, and seeking to find where people naturally crossover will enable effective collaboration

I have been working with different digital and tech organisations for many years. In my career, I moved from pretty siloed working to more collaborative teams to really collaborative teams. However, more recently, I’ve started to see a worrying trend towards focusing on specialisms at the expense of collaboration, shared responsibility and valuable outcomes.

The worry I have when I see this is that it can mean that the focus takes teams away from multi-disciplinary collaboration, which leads to worse outcomes and slower delivery.

In this article, I call out three collaboration anti-patterns that I have noticed in more than one organisation, some of the symptoms they cause and some thoughts on how to go about counteracting them.

Three collaboration antipatterns

Collaboration is at the heart of teamwork. Many modern organisations set up teams to be cross-functional or multidisciplinary.

Multidisciplinary teams are made up of specialists from different disciples collaborating together daily towards a shared outcome. They have the roles needed to design, plan, deliver, deploy and iterate a product or service.

Modern approaches and frameworks often focus on increasing flow and reducing blockers, and one way to do this is to remove the barrier between functions.

However, as organisations grow in size and complexity, they look for different ways of working together, and some of these create collaboration anti-patterns.

Three of the most common antipatterns I see and have named here are:

  1. One person split across multiple teams
  2. Product vs. engineering wars
  3. X-led organisations

One person split across multiple teams

This often happens when there is an undervalue or underinvestment in a particular capability or skillset. I see this most often with roles where there is only one person on the team, like a designer, researcher or QA engineer.

When there aren’t enough people with those specialisms to go around, the antipattern is to split their time across multiple teams or even to take the role out of the team entirely to form a separate function that acts like an agency.

In one organisation I worked with, there was a very small team of designers who had the additional role of user research. Those designers were working across multiple teams and were constantly playing catch up. Whenever I met with them, they were frustrated and stressed out at the amount of work they needed to do. They felt pressured to get things done and often treated like a blocker for other people. When there were team sessions, the designers often couldn’t take part or were being called away to deal with issues on other teams. This led to everyone being frustrated and a lot of wasted time waiting around.

In this antipattern, the person working on multiple teams doesn’t have the time, capacity or space to be a full collaborator; they not only spend time split across teams, but they also spend a lot of time switching between contexts. They will often find that they become a blocker, have no time to be creative, have little input into decision-making, and end up frustrated and unmotivated. The teams miss out on an important specialism and viewpoint in the team.

Product vs. engineering wars

This antipattern seems to be increasingly common at the moment, where an organisation is split between the areas of product, which includes disciplines like design, user research, business analysis and product management and engineering or technology, which includes disciplines like software engineering, data, operations and QA.

In this scenario, each of these areas has its own levels and hierarchy that cause replicating silos all the way through the organisation,  from the C-suite to contributors on teams.

"Team members align themselves with their management structure or functional leadership as their primary identity, instead of their business or customer value stream, making it easier for teams to assume an "us" versus "them" posture."

Image source: Bottleneck #03: Product v Engineering - Rick Kick and Kennedy Collins

This lack of shared responsibility at all levels can lead to silos all the way through the organisation and make it difficult for team members to collaborate.

It can also lead to product-making decisions and then throwing them over the wall to engineering, essentially waterfall or stage-gate-like behaviour.

X-Led organisations

This antipattern is when an organisation names one of its disciplines as the one that leads decision-making in the organisation. It may be data-led, product-led, policy-led, or engineering-led.

It may stem from a heavy focus on an area, particularly when course correcting, but it can become too literal and dictate who holds all the power, how decisions get made and who gets left out in the cold.

This antipattern can lead to decision-making that is too heavily influenced by one view and doesn’t benefit from a rounded set of experiences and ideas.

I have read a number of justifications for an X-led organisation, and many of them read as if one discipline is more important than the others, which illustrates the collaboration antipattern.

In one tech-led organisation, I observed, the technical architects were seen as the most important role. They had doctorates and were very skilled; the organisation considered their input to be the most important and was worried about losing them to competitors. They were working in a very technical area, so it was understandable that they had great input into technically innovative approaches.  

However, it meant that the approaches to the work were unbalanced, and the voice of other specialists was lost.

Three symptoms these antipatterns cause

To continue my pattern of threes, I want to share three problems that I see arising from these antipatterns.

Who holds the power?

The first is that these antipatterns can dictate who holds the power, which means who has the biggest influence on decision-making, prioritisation and what gets built.

In the one person is split across multiple teams antipattern, that one person doesn’t have the time or space to think creatively or to be properly involved in decision-making; they spend most of their time performing tasks and playing catch up and their tasks will be dictated by full-time team members.

When it comes to the product vs. engineering wars antipattern, there is a constant battle between who is in charge, and this can lead to very siloed behaviours and resistance to collaboration.

In the X-led organisation antipattern, the X holds the power and can dictate what gets prioritised at the expense of other opinions.

It reinforces professional protectionism

Professional protectionism is a term I borrowed from healthcare. When I read about it, I recognised the behaviour; it happens when people feel overprotective over their role at the expense of collaboration and sharing with others.

Professional protectionism may look like people arguing about specific tasks being part of their role while preventing others from taking part or people not sharing information with others.

Where professional protectionism exists, giving up these boundaries can be seen as a loss of self, power and authority. When organisations create these power imbalances between different people, it reinforces these professional boundaries and incentives to maintain them.

Linked to this professional identity is a sense of self. In some organisations, roles are tightly linked to our sense of self: status, authority, responsibility and experience, particularly if roles relate to hierarchy.

It creates in-team silos

Power imbalances can all lead to creating in-team silos, which is where there are clear work boundaries within a team, and tasks pass from person to person depending on what is being done. In-team silos can happen when team roles are too clearly defined, and there is no overlap or collaboration.

These silos can lead to having more people in a team than needed, because if one person cannot perform different roles, then there needs to be a person for every role. Additionally, it can also lead to blockers while the team waits for the one person to complete a task before it can move on.

Teams need to collaborate in order to solve wicked problems

Wicked problems are problems where there isn’t a single or complete solution because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. They need people from different domains, experiences and views of the world to bring diversity to how we solve them.

"In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous."

- David Epstein Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Some things to try if you have these collaboration antipatterns

Create enabling organisational structures

One way to help combat these collaboration antipatterns is to create cross-disciplinary shared responsibility and accountability at all levels; in the previously mentioned article, bottleneck #03: product v engineering,  Rich Kick and Kennedy Collins suggest a model of cross-functional collaboration across all levels of an organisation.

Image source: Bottleneck #03: Product v Engineering - Rick Kick and Kennedy Collins

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni describes this as the first team principal.

"Leaders prioritize supporting their fellow leaders over their direct reports - that they are responsible to their peers more than they are to their individual or 'second' teams."

Creating teams horizontally across similar levels should foster better collaboration throughout the organisation, shared responsibility and shared goals.

Build multidisciplinary (and beyond) teams

Because we are dealing with wicked problems, we need to bring together different disciplines with their own knowledge, skills, experience and lenses.

In order to be truly multidisciplinary, we need to recognise that disciplines and specialisms are not the same as roles and that people have a unique set of skills and experience that is different to any other person. People’s roles and experiences overlap; this is great and makes for far more collaborative teams working together towards a common goal.

For example, there may be an engineer on the team who can also do some basic design layouts, a QA engineer of the team who can also write content, or a BA who can carry out user research interviews with some support.

It can be useful to think about specialists as people who can lead while others in the team can take part. This helps to increase whole team responsibility, and allows for collaboration and the sharing of skills.

When designing teams for a phase of work, think about what the team is trying to achieve and what blend of people can best do that, rather than a list of job titles.

Ask yourself:

  • What knowledge, skills and experience do we need on the team to achieve the outcome?
  • Where are the opportunities to collaborate or upskill people?
  • How do we achieve this (without making the team too big)?

Beyond the multidisciplinary team

You can also think about how collaborative your current team is and if you’d like roles to overlap more. The descriptions below that build upon multidisciplinary teams come from the healthcare domain and can be a useful guide.

Multidisciplinary teams

Described as: members who may have separate but interrelated roles, and maintain their own disciplinary boundaries.

Teams are additive, not integrative.

Interdisciplinary teams

Described as: members who may blur some disciplinary boundaries, but still maintain a discipline-specific base.

Teams integrate closer to complete a shared goal.

Transdisciplinary teams

Described as: team members who share roles and goals. They share skills, allowing others to learn as well as acquire new skills.

Teams are more blended, and share objectives and many core skill sets as required to achieve their overall goal.

Adapted from: Graham Ellis and Nick Sevdalis (2019) Understanding and improving multidisciplinary team working in geriatric medicine. Age and Ageing; vol. 48: 498–505 doi: 10.1093/ageing/afz021.

Purposely overlap as a team

Teams themselves can foster more collaborative working by understanding more about each other’s abilities and actively creating opportunities to overlap.

Most people have non-linear career paths, or squiggly careers as described in the book The Squiggly Career by Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis; look for ways to find out more about each others’ paths and how people can contribute their skills to the team.

One way to do this is to use a tool like the Capability Comb. This is an exercise that helps a team describe their specialisms and interests through the metaphor of a comb with different-length teeth.

The comb model is a step beyond T-shaped, referring to the skills that someone has. T-shaped means a deep specialism with broad general knowledge and skills, and π-shaped people refers to a couple of deep specialisms with breadth across the top. The comb-shaped refers to different levels of skills in multiple areas.

The Capability Comb is a way for people to think about how they describe their unique capability profile to their teammates, describing what they are great at and what they want to develop. It starts to break out of the box that a job description puts them in, then talks about what they excel in and how they want to portray themselves.

Using the Capability Comb at a team kickoff or reset can help to build empathy and find opportunities for collaboration. It is great for understanding the shape of your team, blurring the edges of roles and creating one team.

Promote collaboration and reduce unnecessary silos

Whatever your situation or position at your organisation, look for ways to break down these silos, and break the collaboration antipatterns. Find those points of friction and call them out, look for the symptoms of imbalanced power and decision-making and play your part in creating a collaborative environment.

Only by true collaboration, empathy and shared responsibility will we be able to work as real teams and create things that make our users, our teams and our organisations happy.

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