How do you collaborate when people have really different skill levels?

Following on from our latest article “When do you start collaborating”, this next one answers another question asked during our Open Studio - Collaborating for success. 

Q: “How do you manage collaboration among disparate skill levels and work styles, both at individual and interdepartmental or inter-institutional levels?”

TLDR: 

Our team have some good proactive suggestions on this, such as:

  • Being clear about the skills available in the team and allowing time for shadowing if needed
  • Encouraging knowledge-sharing in lots of different ways, so it’s accessible to all
  • Being patient, even under pressure – upskilling doesn’t happen quickly, but it will make the difference in a cross-disciplinary team.  

The long answer: 

We refer to Toyota a lot, because they show how effective you can be with a mature philosophy on how to get things done. The Toyota reference that comes to mind here is their approach to partnerships. They have a whole-system mindset, and see it as their responsibility to help their upstream and downstream partners (e.g. parts suppliers, shipping providers, and so on) learn how to work effectively with them. So they invest a lot of time and effort in improving the capability of everyone in their supply chain, and they see that as a good and reasonable thing.

Toyota

You need a similar mindset when collaborating within and between organisations on digital projects: if there are skill gaps, the only solution is time, patience, and active investment.

You can upskill colleagues and partners more quickly by co-locating—we often do that with partners and clients alike. (Harder under COVID of course.) 

But people have to want to learn. Managing the culture and power dynamics of that can be tricky—no easy answers there. The higher-skill team needs to display a genuine willingness to share their knowledge, and the lower-skill team must be keen to learn and willing to work. 

Having a multidisciplinary team, which is composed of a broad mix of skills, abilities and experiences that can rally around a complex problem, can be a key ingredient in ensuring great collaboration. However it doesn't happen overnight, and there are a number of things we can proactively do here:

  • During project discovery, as a team, discuss and define what skills, abilities and behaviors will be needed to ship the product. 
  • Once we have defined what skills are needed, we can then compare this against our current team formation. Are there any gaps that we need to look at filling? If so, you can consider bringing in a specialist in that specific area, and encouraging other team members to shadow them.
  • Identify if the team has any obvious towers of knowledge (an expert whose knowledge/wisdom concerning a certain discipline is not shared with other team members within the team). If you do have some towers, there are some things we can do to help organically share their knowledge:
    • Take into account any professional development interests from other team members
    • Encourage some paired working
    • Peer reviewing work
    • Lunch and learn sessions
    • Show and tell of similar projects, or other areas of work
    • Organise training and workshops
    • Bring in some external expertise, with the understanding that their engagement should help embed their knowledge across the team
  • Support cross-development of skills across the team to give people the ability to work in other roles.

When partnering with another organisation for the first time, sometimes we do experience a skills gap in a specific area, or a cultural difference. The same approach can be used here too, highlighting this chink right at the start of the project should give us ample time to use some of the above tips to help upskill that organisation—they are our partners for a reason; we share the same passion to solve a problem, and there is plenty for us to learn from them too!

MM team

Genuine collaboration isn't born out of disciplines working in silos, it requires a multidisciplinary team that is tailored to the particular problem at hand. It doesn't always happen quickly, but with some patience and support, it’s definitely possible to upskill a team so that they are able to collaborate and become high performing.