Brackish Waters Ahead: Building Interdisciplinary Teams to Drive Impact

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Insights into team composition, culture, and impact from Ginger Zielinskie, Chief Strategy Officer, data.org

Hopefully you have had a chance to work on a successful team. Doesn’t it feel fantastic? There’s nothing better than when a group of people, each bringing their own different experiences, skills, and perspectives, comes together to solve a shared problem that alone seems insurmountable.  

I imagine that many of you have also felt the pain of a dysfunctional team. Turf battles, talking past each other, backbiting, misaligned goals and incentives — it’s the worst.

As Social Impact Organizations (SIOs) stretch their horizon, focusing on innovation and scaling their impact, interdisciplinary teams with expertise across program, policy, technology, data, and ethics are no longer nice to have — they are essential.

So how do we build and empower interdisciplinary teams? What is the right recipe for success? How can we enable our teams to most effectively work across disciplines to build the multi-dimensional systemic change required to tackle entrenched social issues?

After 20 years working with diverse social impact organizations as well as growing and leading a successful, data-driven enterprise, Benefits Data Trust (BDT), I have learned that there are several individual and team qualities to foster and prioritize in order to successfully build, engage, and empower interdisciplinary teams.

Be Humble: The problems that the social impact sector faces are daunting — and will only be solved when we can unlock the power of technology and data coupled with subject matter expertise. Technologists will not do it alone. Social policy experts will not do it alone. A wide assortment of talents, experience, and expertise are required to deliver meaningful long-term impact. Effective teams will work proactively and relentlessly to create the space to learn from each other and honor the diverse perspectives, knowledge and skill sets required to deliver on the organization’s goals and mission. There is no room for a technology-first approach without adequate understanding of the multiple tools that must be leveraged to generate solutions that meet the demand of the problems we seek to collectively solve. Similarly, there is no room for the smug policy expert or the assumption that technical teams are unwilling to learn and work in concert with non-technical solutions. For those of us who have experienced these brackish waters, it can be intense.  So be humble — acknowledge what you know and do not know — and then work to adapt and create a space of shared learning and collective problem-solving.

Be Curious: We also must be resolute in our commitment to curiosity. As a global society we are in an era of accelerated innovation — the power to use data and technology for good has created a whole new way of tackling stubborn, long-standing social issues. There is innovation in the private sector that can and should absolutely be applied to social sector problems. At the same time, social sector problems are extremely complex, and it is necessary to understand the historical context, as well as the short- and long-term implications of proposed interventions.  Interdisciplinary teams will approach their work by honoring the fact that team members have different levels of awareness about the complexity of the problem and the potential tools that can be deployed.  For example, anyone who has worked in policy change knows that passing new policy is one important step.  That said, actual implementation of the new policy and how it will directly interact with people and communities it seeks to serve is another whole story.  Effective, interdisciplinary teammates will look comprehensively in new and different ways to tackle complex problems with a curious mind, deploying the right types of tools at the right time to maximize impact.

Align on Shared Goals: No matter the tools to be deployed — direct service, technology innovation, data or policy change — they are all means to an end. Interdisciplinary teams must be staunchly committed to shared goals in order to achieve genuine impact. Without this alignment teams will diverge into their specific charge, whether it be a product to be developed, a model to be deployed, a policy to be changed, or a service to be provided. Effective interdisciplinary teams will comprehend and be able to continually work towards shared goals, developing clear cross-department routines and language, understanding how specific work streams weave together to achieve meaningful, measurable impact.

Develop Transparent, Realistic Timelines and Budgets: SIOs and their funding partners need to get real on how much technological innovation costs, how new tools will impact operating budgets going forward, and how much time and coordination it takes to deploy the right technical advancements appropriately. While reviewing budgets, people, plans and timelines for the Inclusive Growth and Recovery Challenge in the fall of 2020 I had multiple conversations with partner organizations about how new dedicated staff were required to shepherd not just the creation of new models and tools, but also to support the operational and relational considerations for how their evolving team will work together. It is critical to give this cross-functional coordination the space and resources required to do it well.

High-performing, interdisciplinary teams will develop clear routines to take into account how advances in one area influence others. For example, these teams consider how technical builds, launches, or releases affect staff training, direct service, policy, communications, and development. Some of the best eureka moments at BDT came when we paired an engineer with a direct service professional. Honoring these operational interdependencies and seeing them as a fundamental strength is essential to supporting an effective interdisciplinary team.

As a sector we also need to better understand the cost of building, supporting and strengthening interdisciplinary teams. Embedding new digital and data-driven tools into social impact organizations is not an either or cost — it is a both and cost. Technological infrastructure is an evolving and ongoing expense that social impact organizations will incur. Funding partners need to understand that in order to effectively support interdisciplinary teams, the right infrastructure is required and there will be ongoing costs to maintain it. While a robust, secure back-end technical infrastructure isn’t as sexy as a public facing app, it needs to be established and maintained. Revenue must match ambitions and must support the true cost of best in class interdisciplinary teams, including newly structured budgets that account for data and technology infrastructure that for too long has been minimized in social impact organization expenses.

Leadership in Balance: When the team at BDT decided to hire a C-Suite, I thought my job would get easier. It didn’t — it got harder. I had to adapt to strong leaders advocating for their teams and increased resources. The pace of innovation quickened, and the need to collaborate and coordinate across functions became even more essential. I realized quickly that I needed to preserve our entrepreneurial mindset and foster continued innovation while simultaneously supporting routines that enhanced interdisciplinary team building. A balanced approach was required.  

Creative, curious, entrepreneurial leaders are the linchpin to successful interdisciplinary teams.  They will support the creation and should work to embody an interdisciplinary culture. Humility is required as diverse subject matter experts across functions will continually uncover innovative solutions that need to be tested, refined and integrated into your coordinated strategy. Leading smart, relentless, interdisciplinary teams is not for the big egos with all the solutions. Instead, it is for the passionate problem solvers who recognize that the challenges we seek to overcome require a balanced, interdisciplinary approach. Our job as leaders is to cultivate that cohesion and recognize that only in achieving the balance needed will we uncover real solutions that move the needle on the social problems we seek to solve.

Building, supporting, and empowering interdisciplinary teams is a commitment to a mindset. A mindset that as one team we honor the hard work of our colleagues to date while in parallel adapting and taking advantage of new tools now available to innovate and build better ways of solving old problems. Make no mistake — this work is not for the purists but for the pragmatists. Successful drivers of impact lead with their disciplinary knowledge and expertise, but engage with others’ approaches and styles to navigate brackish waters, and achieve shared goals.

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Photo credit: Jordan Heath

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