When the multi is missing from multi-disciplinary

a combining form meaning “many,” “much,” “multiple,” “many times,” “more than two,” “composed of many like parts,” “in many respects,” used in the formation of compound words

One of the truisms of modern, agile ways of working is the importance of the multidisciplinary team. It goes back to the original principles from the Agile Manifesto →

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

..and the Government Service Standard is even more forthright about it with the third standard→

Have a multidisciplinary team

Put in place a sustainable multidisciplinary team that can design, build and operate the service, led by a suitably skilled and senior service owner with decision-making responsibility.

On a personal level the most successful teams I have been involved in have been truly multidisciplinary — comprising of engineers, researchers, designers, analysts, delivery managers (statisticians) and more — coming together to deliver complex outcomes. It was the blend of skills and perspectives that made it possible to succeed — we needed every skill (and many more — without realising it at the time we had implemented Emily’s Team Onion).

As I said this is a commonly held opinion and when I came to write this blogpost I assumed it would be straightforward to pepper it with references to studies that point to the improvements it brings to project delivery (since reading ‘Lab Rats’ by Dan Lyons I am hyper aware of checking my sources for some of the agile/lean core ideas — as he basically blames agile for the decline of the workplace). As it turns out there is very little on the topic when it comes to the digital, data and technology worlds. There is a lot of opinion (who knew there were so many opinionated product people eh?!) but there is a bit of a lack of evidence based stuff.

Thankfully the general theory is well evidenced in the health space with many papers demonstrating the importance of multidisciplinary team in improving all manner of outcomes across that sphere — another reason to love the NHS(!).

One of the things I have become aware of in the last couple of years is something more akin to a dual-discipline team masquerading as multi-discipline. Often this is a sign that this is a ‘technology transformation’ rather than somewhere with a ‘product development’ mindset.

There are some common elements to these teams. Usually primarily software engineers perhaps supported by some testing or ops capability as well as some kind of (w)agile role going through the Scrum ceremonies while working to specific (and tight) deadlines. They are often held at a distance from the end user and lack clarity as to how they fit in to the wider vision as they are one piece of a much larger puzzle.

There may well be user researchers and designers in the mix but they operate in isolation — often with their outputs translated by Business Analysts into user stories (or tasks) that are handed over to be actioned.

What I have come to terms with is that actually this is often quite an efficient approach in certain circumstances. Just as I have learned that agile isn’t always the right approach (I mean I wish it was but it really isn’t..) I have also come to terms with the idea that while having a multidisciplinary team is absolutely vital if you are to succeed in any kind of product/service design scenario when you are re-imagining the offering or starting from scratch. The problem is sometimes these days the reality is that some teams need to keep the lights on — or maybe it is more that they need to rewire the lighting but not remodel the whole house.

There is a LOT of legacy technology out there — some is burning, some is creaking, some is held together by sticky tape and string but some is still doing its job.

When the question is ‘how should we meet this user need?’ then call in a skilled multidisciplinary team and give them space to explore the problem space, test their hypotheses and follow through to an answer. For the record this is where I am happiest.

If the question is how do we make this platform sustainable for another five years while we wait for it to become a priority for our service designers? Then perhaps you need a dual-discipline (or maybe tri) team who can take a focused approach to re-platforming to give you time and space for that broader transformation down the line.

In a perfect world we’d be redesigning all the services all the time but we are far from there.

It is possible to be principled and pragmatic.