We live in an age of increased complexity, velocity and demand for multidisciplinary thinking. So much of what we do today requires the careful balance of both generalists and specialists to make great work happen.
It excites me to see more and more organizations embrace this approach by bringing together people from multitudes of fields and perspectives, enabling a new depth and diversity of visioning and problem solving. Optimally, these multidisciplinary teams are further supported through evolved organizational and management-thinking that favors meritocracy over rigidity. Organizationally, this can be achieved by constructing horizontal networks where there were once more stacked seniority-based hierarchies.
In practice, managing people and teams of this sort requires every bit as much care and rigor as more traditional structures, but the energies are directed differently — there’s more attention directed toward supporting relevant possibilities and valuable outcomes than reinforcing structure. The investment is worthwhile, because when it works, the results and cultural implications are magnificent.
But, when it fails to deliver, not only the results but also the costs and carnage of the process can be costly and painful. Having a team organized around ability and perspective means that everyone must truly pull their weight, and a weak link breaks the whole chain. Failure to meet the needs of your colleagues can often lead to resentment, tension and burnout for the team who has to pick up the slack, often pressuring reversion to more status and title-driven structures because the “new approach” broke down.
But, when implemented strategically, the pros outweigh the cons immensely. The following components will help ensure that organizations desiring this approach are able to get there effectively.
Some familiar elements to traditional organizational structure remain important. Clarity regarding responsibility and authority allows a reliable structure that enables employees to understand how they are evaluated, remunerated and given opportunities for growth.
It’s usually inadvisable to do away with these aspects of organizational structure altogether, but there is a way to create a productively level playing-field in the day to day. By developing project teams that look at each member as part of a whole, each with their own roles and responsibilities, but aligned and committed to a common goal, seniority and titles become less important.
Does it really matter if you’re an executive creative director and someone else is a mid-level strategist? It shouldn’t if everyone has cosigned to open collaboration and the idea that good thinking can come from any part of the team. An important overlay, though, is to be clear about what each team member ultimately is relied upon for and empowered to do in the service of the endeavor.
In this regard, a flattened structure often provides senior team members even more latitude to inspire and lead ideation and to set the tone for collaboration, rather than working within the assumption that the most senior specialists exclusively “own” creative or intellectual output. In this way, a manager can play the role of a “senior generalist” who is most effective when recognizing and elevating the diverse skills of the team of generalists under them.
The end result is almost always a better product and an empowered team.
We’ve all read the articles about “T-shaped” people — those folks that can go both deep in their expertise and stretch wide into other fields or functions.
This is a great aspect of many successful flatly designed teams, but there’s an important (and often overlooked) component to this: The most successful T-shaped people are good at shifting between what they are generally good at and what they are specifically good at because they also know one critical thing — what they are not good at doing.
“T-shaped” isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a permission slip that grants someone authority to do anything they want. Part of being a great collaborator on a team of this kind is to know where your skills are not the strongest and to be vocal about this with your colleagues.
When it comes to project-specific meetings, it can be helpful to have each team member state what they can offer, and to have other members accept and reciprocate based on relevance, value and capacity. Here, the manager plays a critical role in conducting the various players into a coherent orchestra.
When working on a team of equals, empathy for each other’s varied work style and needs can not be overlooked.
If you’re organizing a pitch and you know one of your colleagues is an introvert who benefits from a rehearsal before getting in the room, the timeline for the whole group may need to bend. Some organizations would look at this as a deficiency or a weakness, but in fact it can be quite the opposite. By allowing the team to transmogrify, informed by (and reinforcing the value of) the group’s collective empathy for each other, the best of each participant’s efforts can be truly maximized.
Granted, this is sometimes easier said than done. Idiosyncratic demands from one team member should not always be heeded.
More to the point, an empathic sense of each team member’s unique work style, skills and weaknesses, will empower the group not only to cover gaps and elevate strengths, but can also radiate as an appealing and inspiring attribute to potential clients and other parties. This is done effectively only through honest, respectful transparency from all parties in a culture that provides a safe environment for such discourse, and effectively manages time throughout the course of the project.
If team members hold back on sharing what works for them — or worse, resent a colleague’s needs as opposed to working collaboratively and collegially — the team’s chances for success on any level commensurately diminish. Moreover, the most talented and valuable employees are much more likely to flourish in open, supporting and high-functioning environments that seek out and maximize open discourse.
As our modern organizations continue to evolve and as the ideals of an increasingly millennial workforce become part of the tapestry of our teams, it’s incumbent on all of us to evaluate what sort of organizational hierarchy will best serve our businesses. Flat teams can truly deliver fantastic work and are proven to be a powerful force in building company culture and camaraderie, but it’s up to each organization to decide on its own if this is the right path for them.