Challenges coaching multidisciplinary teams

by , under Agile Coaching, Management, Scrum, Team management

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It is a great concept this multidisciplinary thing: Create a single team with all the different people required to deliver a service, instead of having different knowledge areas doing their part independently. Make them work at the same pace. Have them focus on the same goal at a given moment. Remove extremely detailed documentation to avoid delays and misunderstandings. Help everyone become a specialist generalist, so at least he can help his team colleagues when bad times come. Break the physical walls, so that they breathe the same air and feel part of the same organism. Tell them to self-organize.
Just break all those barriers that were artificially created with the old school enterprise paradigm. ( BOOM! )
Cool. Every Agile Coach finds this new organizational paradigm is far better ( and more exciting ) than the classic way of working, and we know it brings lots of joy when everyone understands what teamwork means. Most of the pains we used to have with that oldie organization disappear. Yey!!
Oh, wait… What is all that noise? What are these long faces? Why are these guys so mad at each other? Isn’t this new organization supposed to be free of all these old problems?
Some new challenges seem to appear from nowhere when all these different people have to work together. By shaping this multidisciplinary teams we wanted to destroy some of the artificial barriers in our organization, but some of these barriers were created by someone for his/her own protection back in time.
It is obvious that all these different people from different backgrounds also have different interests, different mindsets, different skills sets ( that’s why you want them together, don’t you? ), they approach problems from a different perspective, have different values and live life quite differently. Each different professional tribe embeds an idiosyncrasy to their members, shaping ghetto-like spaces: Sales, Finance, HR, Art, Engineering, IT… Each one is a different culture, with their own practices, symbols, language, leaders… Needless to say, they also share common experiences and myths in their relationship to the rest of tribes.
It is quite difficult to find people from marketing or sales who share personal values with someone from systems engineering or IT support. If the organization didn’t originally follow a strict recruitment process that had in strong consideration the candidate’s personal values, this new multi disciplinary team might even face bigger challenges. Hopefully, at least by chance, their members might share some of those values. But that’s not all of it. We often find organizations choosing candidates based on knowledge, intelligence, education… but what about evaluating their fears, their relationship to other professional tribes or perhaps checking how antisocial they are? Some times we find that extremely smart people, who you usually want around you, are too introvert and find it complicated to interact with other people. Maybe they don’t find it interesting at all! And that is fine, of course. It’s something you can expect from someone who spent lots of his lifetime learning introspectively instead of playing with others. Actually, perhaps other people have caused him pain for this and he has hard feelings. The problem is that in the agile context and without the proper coaching they usually find themselves misunderstood, with other people not being able to accept that they need help on this. Sometimes, they themselves don’t assume they need this help and either resist strongly until the agile transition fails or decide to leave to another company where this agile thing doesn’t bother them. It is sad, losing so much talent because simply nobody helped them in doing something they hadn’t done before.
When a new technology or a new tool comes to the organization, it seems so obvious that everybody who didn’t use it before needs training on it. However it doesn’t seem so obvious that these kind of profiles need help, coaching, support and guidance on these topics. These are the topics we have to overcome in a transition to agile. It’s never just about changing the organizational processes. The main job that needs to be done is way deeper, it’s about bringing together people that eventually have hard feelings to each other.
Communication is now one of the biggest challenges: when trying to be agile people have to dedicate a lot of time to speak, listen and understand each other’s points of view, problems, needs and personal motivations. Not only they will have to align goals but they will also have to help and support each other, which is pretty hard when some team members show no interest for others. Being friends, sharing time and interests outside of the purely work-related is one of the keys to high performance teams. You can’t fake this. You can just create a safe space, bring experts and give time. Friendship needs to be honest, it takes time to generate the safe space required for this to happen and see people recovering from their old wounds. Obviously those deeper feelings were already there before we started with the multi disciplinary teams, but now with all those barriers protecting people gone, the wounds are way more visible and painful.
But while all this happens, companies need to continue with their business, as usual. They need to get things done.
Here is when some organizations realize that they need this new area of expertise, people who can help their teams to work in their relationships. Teams start needing people with the skills and knowledge to work on people relationships, people to water the garden, people who understand human nature and can see over cultural or tribal differences. The more strange the disciplines are to each other in a scrum team, the more complex it is to lead this team. These people have to be organizational leaders, and as leaders in this context need to have a wide range of interests, social skills and knowledge to understand and motivate all the members of the organization.
Each tribe values different things on their leaders, although there is a common ground: honesty, trust, competence, intelligence… Every tribe values these points, but also some specific values arise in each tribe.
Every tribe also has common anti-values for their leaders, like egocentrism, irritability, dictatorship… And again each tribe has some extra rejected values. Now this is when it gets really tricky.
Let’s consider an organization with a unique team, a multidisciplinary team of engineers creating a product, each one with knowledge of a different specific technology, but basically all engineers. It is quite obvious that the kind of leadership they will value should be brought by someone who shares the interests of engineering with them, who is smart because they value intelligence, and with experience in any of their fields of expertise, ideally the most complex one. But also someone who shares their “dark side”: enemies, fears… It’d be great if the leader could help the rest of the team overcome this dark side, but by definition it’s not required to succeed as long as they don’t interact with any other organization.
However, if your multidisciplinary team includes engineers, artists, designers, testers, customer care analysts, business specialists, data scientists… Leadership is now not just about knowledge, but new values arise and even the weight of each value is going to be different. This kind of team requires a cross-tribe leader who values and embodies what each tribe considers important in their leaders. Each tribe has different expectations on their leadership, and this is the most complex aspect of coaching organizations who really bet on multi disciplinary teams. What happens now with enemies and fears? Well, there is not much space here for dark sides. This leader must now understand the nature of those bad feelings, the root cause behind them and help the group overcome them.
The thing gets even trickier when an organization is multi national. This creates a second axis of complexity, because different national cultures also bring along different idiosyncrasies. This also has an impact on how we approach people, how we send messages. Effective leaders avoid ethnocentrism, find shared values across cultures, and embody the common values every culture expects. You can find a starting point to national cultures with Hofstede and his Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, but bear in mind that the dichotomic nature of this dimensions ignore lots of aspects, and you still need to use other approaches with a focus in individuals and their differences instead of Hofstede’s macro-focus.
This is the kind of problems coaches face when they have to work in authentically multidisciplinary teams, or when they have to coach at organizational level, in organizations without wide-ranging multidisciplinary teams. Again, it’s not about size, it’s about how different the team members are. And definitely it’s about what kind of person and what kind of leader you are.

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