Insight - 12/21/23

Unlocking Innovation: Eight Keys of Cross-Disciplinary Design Collaboration

5 min

By Meghan Day

In the ever-evolving landscape of design, collaboration has become a cornerstone of innovation. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of cross-disciplinary design, where experts from diverse fields converge to tackle complex challenges. Here at Interwoven we are continually learning about new industries and disciplines to serve our clients, and diverse, cross-disciplinary teams lead to the most exciting outcomes.

As businesses undergo transformations to align with emerging market demands and new technologies, it is evident that a narrow, one-discipline perspective is no longer viable. The challenges we encounter are inherently interdisciplinary, and their solutions need to be interdisciplinary as well. Disciplines learning from one another can achieve fresh insights, generating novel solutions to complex problems. In good cross-disciplinary design, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, the team creating outcomes that no one discipline could have accomplished alone. In this Insight article we outline the key elements of successful cross-disciplinary design, showing how this powerful set of “keys” or strategies can facilitate collaboration and unlock innovation for any team.

Photo: Jason Goodman

Key 1: Embrace New (to you) Frontiers

Cross-disciplinary collaboration opens doors to uncharted territories of research and discovery. While it can be intimidating to be in unfamiliar territory, embrace the opportunity to learn from experts. Don’t shy away from asking questions; curiosity fuels the collaborative spirit. Dive into relevant literature, understand the vocabulary, and immerse yourself in the nuances of the field. Being the novice in the room offers a unique advantage; your fresh perspective can spark innovative ideas and novel approaches. The possibility for cross-pollination is high when a new discipline joins the team.

Key 2: Learn the Language

Collaboration, in its true essence, is not about design by committee but about co-ownership, mutual respect, and shared objectives. In the world of cross-disciplinary collaboration, different fields speak different languages. Jargon and field-specific terminology can be a barrier to effective communication. Building a common language between disciplines is essential. Invest time in understanding the vocabulary of your collaborators. Create a shared glossary, standardize nomenclature, and ensure clear communication. A unified language fosters mutual understanding, paving the way for great collaboration.

Key 3: Practice Patience

Different disciplines operate at different speeds. Experiments may take years, computational models require meticulous validation, and publications follow distinct timelines. Patience is the virtue that sustains cross-disciplinary collaborations. Acknowledge the varied paces, communicate timelines effectively, and appreciate the intricate processes of each field. Patience is critical for fruitful collaboration.

Key 4: Embrace Small Teams

Small teams make coordination and communication easier, and bonds within the team form more quickly. They also promote individual ownership and empowerment, countering the Ringelmann Effect, in which individual productivity decreases as the size of the team increases. By the same token, individual effort increases as the size of the team decreases. A great corporate example of this is Amazon’s two-pizza teams. Amazon’s concept is simple: teams should be small enough that two pizzas would feed them. In practical terms, this means a team ideally consists of fewer than 10 people, minimizing communication lines and reducing bureaucratic overhead. These teams are empowered with a single focus, concentrating on specific products or services, and are known for their agility and innovation. 

Photo: UX Indonesia

Key 5: Create a Digital Home Base 

Utilize digital platforms like Miro, Confluence, or FigJam as collaborative spaces. These flexible, multimedia platforms serve as hubs where team members can interact with ongoing work, access shared documents, and make an active contribution to the project. While speaking the same language is critical, having access to the same information, and being able to develop insights in real time,  is equally important.

Key 6: Create a Routine

A strong collaborative structure keeps communication opportunities frequent and progress moving forward. Regular meetings, joint workshops, and shared courses create a framework for constructive exchange. Financial support and shared responsibilities strengthen these bonds. Collaboration requires investment, both in terms of time and resources. Establishing a robust structural framework ensures sustained collaboration, nurturing innovation over the long term. Here’s a great case study outlining the story of how NPR’s Planet Money created a special, innovative report on global supply chains with the help of a cross-disciplinary team.

Key 7: Adapt as Needed

Collaborations, like any dynamic relationship, face challenges. Recognize when things aren’t working optimally. Address problems proactively, communicate openly, and explore solutions collaboratively. Pragmatism guides the way; sometimes, pausing or seeking alternatives is the best course of action. End collaborations amicably if needed, maintaining professional respect. Adaptability ensures that collaborations evolve and thrive.

Key 8: Cultivate Synergy

Synergy is the heartbeat of successful collaborations. It arises when diverse skills harmonize, creating outcomes greater than the sum of individual contributions. Recognize the complementary strengths of each collaborator. Seek win-win situations where both parties benefit. Negotiate agreements that value mutual gains, acknowledge contributions, and uphold shared interests. Synergistic collaborations are transformative, ushering in innovations that shape the future.

A good example of synergistic collaboration is General Electric’s Work-Out system, which empowers the formation of teams outside the typical departmental boundaries to solve specific issues. The team is chosen by their proximity to various facets of the issue, bringing those closest to the problem together to solve it. They are challenged to innovate around the issue, and empowered to carry out the solutions they develop. Developed in the 1980’s, the Work-Out system has been incredibly successful, breaking down hierarchies, streamlining meetings, and improving payoffs. 

Get Innovating!

In the shifting landscape of cross-disciplinary design, collaboration is not a destination but a journey. It demands commitment, patience, and a willingness to adapt. By embracing a mindset of co-ownership, facilitating open discussions, and valuing diverse perspectives, teams can transform collaboration from a mere buzzword into a tangible force that propels projects to new, innovative heights. The key lies not in perfection but in progress—a continuous endeavor toward a more collaborative, connected, and creative future.

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