Before the internet age, businesses often filled their ranks with people of a similar background and mind-set. The logic behind this approach was that this would create efficiency; a team of like-minded people all working towards a collective goal. Makes sense right? These days, not necessarily.
Although it has been subtle, there is a substantial shift in perspective occurring. Companies are now looking to uphold their competitive advantage through the value of alternative corporate and team structures.
Homogenous teams are being disbanded for one simple reason: similar people have similar strengths and weaknesses. This leaves teams with “blind-spots” and a narrow perspective when tackling complex, multi-dimensional issues and opportunities. Today, if a company wants to maintain its edge and stay on the forefront of innovation, it needs a diverse and unorthodox team make-up.
Multi-disciplined teams tackle problems from different perspectives and are often better equipped to solve issues, which tend to be complex (and multi-dimensional) by nature.
As a generalist, approaching business “holistically” has been an underlying theme in my career. This has given me a broad lens through which I gauge business opportunities.
Writer Carter Phipps speaks about the importance of being a well-rounded individual in the book Evolutionaries. He argues that those who thrive in the modern workplace are extremely adaptable. This has led to the rise in demand for those who know “a little about a lot”. In the age of information, people have become obsessed with charts, graphs, facts and figures, all of which are useless without context. It is the multi-disciplinarian that offers context and applies meaning to the masses of information.
For example, when I look at a common commercial problem – “should we increase the marketing budget”, I know that a holistic analysis will deliver a more considered solution. Amongst other things, I will want my team to look at how increasing marketing spend will affect cash flow (accounting), how emotionally tied the management team are to the level of the marketing budget (psychology), how the business may be perceived in the market if it reduces marketing spend (branding and sociology), what the return on capital will be as we scale up marketing spend (finance), and can we spend less while improving our brand appeal (graphic design, social media, pull marketing). Looking at such problems from an accounting/cash flow perspective alone would lack longevity and may result in a potential conflict within the management team.
Business guru Peter Drucker summed it up perfectly when he said: "a generalist is a specialist who can relate his own small area to the knowledge of the universe."
The multi-disciplined approach can be translated from individuals to teams. I can use my team at Hamilton Bradshaw Real Estate (HBRE) as an example.I have built an all-star team consisting of individuals who possess a variety of talents and skill sets, all who make hugely important contributions.
I have structured the team in a slightly unorthodox way – the investment professionals sit next to the creative professionals, allowing for a constant flow of disparate ideas and views, ultimately creating a dynamic environment infused with creativity.
A lot of the ideas and strategies I pick up regarding multi-dimensional teams come from world-changing companies such as Google. Google are admired globally for their ability to foster in-house innovation. They have come up with some brilliant initiatives. For example, they allow each member of staff 20% of their time to work on a personal project. This is a company that is as innovative as its branding suggests – innovation flows through the DNA of the organisation. The standard is set by the Founders and it trickles down to the workers who are enthused by the palpable in-house culture.
To foster innovation at every level, the sentiment also needs to come from the bottom up. Every member of the team must have an entrepreneurial streak – I look for this quality when I’m hiring to grow my business. The Google workforce consists of bright people from the most prestigious schools but they also hire those who don’t fit into the traditional corporate structure. The search-engine giant employs scientists, artists, poets, and philosophers. Why? Because they recognise that innovation often happens at the crossover points of different industries and ultimately one can take a more holistic and balanced view on business challenges when considering multiple perspectives.
Ideas do not move in structured or linear paths. Often problems can be solved by taking a concept that is in place within one industry and tweaking it to cater to a different sector.
When you build a multi-disciplined team, the flow of ideas is dynamic. Of course, I realise not everyone wants to innovate their sector, but if you are serious about building an industry-beating, potentially world-changing business, start with the people you hire and heed my advice – mix up the talent and gene pool.