Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Multi-disciplined You

Over the past couple of weeks, I've spent lots of time with executives from the healthcare industry. A common activity of those who want their companies to become more out-of-the-box in their approaches to solutions is the creation of multi-disciplined teams.

Traditionally, product teams and research teams were composed of experts from the same discipline. Over the past couple of decades, as disciplines grew in knowledge and experience, they split into sub-disciplines that, in turn, split into sub-sub-disciplines. Each new discipline concentrated around a subset of subject matter of its parent discipline. Each became more focused. Each became more narrow.

The conscious tradeoff was one of breadth for depth. A side-effect of this tradeoff was that experts in one discipline came to know next to nothing about other disciplines, even those closely related to their own. This was fine until companies and research organizations started to realize that, in order to be effective, solutions needed to be holistic. Pharmaceutical companies needed to consider a persons therapeutic activities. Therapists needed to consider a patient's medications. Doctors needed to think about diet and exercise.

The problem was that none of the experts knew much about other areas of expertise.  Since no one person had expertise in all the areas required to provide a holistic solution, organizations began to create groups of experts, each representing a component discipline. The multi-disciplined team was born.

In theory the idea sounds great. We'll bring together the best people from each field, an all-star team of luminaries from each discipline. We'll provide them all the resources they need to do great things.

In practice, it doesn't work.


Because a multi-disciplined team of people who are each experts in a single discipline is like a multilingual team of people who each speak only one language. Without overlap of disciplines, without common languages, it's impossible for the members to effectively communicate with or benefit from the expertise of others.

Sure, there may be other reasons that we don't see the anticipated benefits of multi-disciplined teams. However, without the ability to effectively translate expertise into language accessible to non-experts, there's little benefit that an expert can offer to a team.

The solution is obvious: multi-disciplined individuals. However it's unlikely to be implemented. The reason is that all our systems that recognize and accredit expertise reward specialization and penalize breadth. Topics of doctoral theses and journal publications are becoming increasingly narrow. Within the orthodoxy, to become a generalist is a bad thing.

Nonetheless, to effectively share your expertise with experts outside your area of expertise, you need to be able to translate it into the language of other experts: if not their native language, at least into one of their secondary languages.

A side effect of becoming a multi-disciplined you is that you become a better expert. You gain new perspectives on subject matter that you thought you knew inside and out.

New areas of expertise need not be, and perhaps are necessarily not, closely related to your primary area of expertise. However, if you want to be someone who can make a big difference in a world that demands holistic thought, if you want to be someone who can catalyze a multi-disciplined team, then its time to branch out and become a multi-disciplined you.

Happy Thursday,

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