What is a multidisciplinary team?
An MDT is greater than the sum of its parts because each team member’s strengths combine in a holistic solution – but it needs the authority to make real decisions, writes Susan McFarland-Lyons
23 June 2022
Product owner. Service designer. Delivery manager. User researcher. UX designer. Content designer. If these job titles are familiar to you, then you probably have a decent grasp of the function of a multidisciplinary team. Maybe you are one of these practitioners? Perhaps you have some of these disciplines in your organisation? But if you’ve never heard of these roles, then keep reading!
United around a problem
A multidisciplinary team, when it comes to service or other product design, is a team put together to focus on solving a problem. The problem is likely to be vague to begin with but evidence of its existence has emerged and been noticed. We’re not sure exactly which groups of people this problem affects or how each experiences it, and we definitely do not know the solution.
So a team is pulled together comprising representatives from different disciplines who are experienced in exploring a problem. This is called a multidisciplinary team, aka an MDT. They are tasked with finding out which groups of people the problem affects and how it affects them.
The MDT team seeks to come up with and implement a solution that addresses the whole problem. The fundamental characteristic of a multidisciplinary team is that the team exists for this single mission and is united around its success.
The team is greater than the sum of its parts because the different skills and expertise that each team member brings to the problem are more likely to lead to a holistic, well-considered solution.
This is not to say that an MDT is parachuted into a department and acts independently from those living the problem. The people in the service help the team to understand the problem and to clarify any constraints or context. These ‘subject matter experts’ are, therefore, vital to crafting a valued solution, alongside the MDT.
A project team is not a multidisciplinary team
In traditional project management, a manager is often made aware of an impending problem and sees it as their job to know how to fix it. In response, they perhaps unilaterally prescribe a solution and assign a team to implement it. The project team heads off with the instruction and reports back to leadership every week or two with a progress update.
This process might lead to an effective result if the manager is well versed in the particular issue and has ‘fixed’ it time and again. They can simply cookie cutter their way out of it. However, in many cases, problems are novel, ambiguous or complex, and fully understanding the problem and its causes is essential in uncovering a solution that will work. It is the role of the manager to assign the problem not the solution to a team. Leadership still owns the problem, they’re just not the ones solving it.
A multidisciplinary team needs authority
To make decisions in pursuit of a goal, a multidisciplinary team needs authority to make important decisions. This can be a challenge in power structures where leadership is exercised from the top down. However, it’s important to note that autonomous multidisciplinary teams do not undermine the inherent hierarchy in an organisation. The MDT might have licence to make decisions but it’s essential that the team continually engages leadership, providing ample opportunity for feedback, debate and challenge.
Just as the team is empowered, so is each team member. They are held accountable for their performance and deliverables by the rest of the multidisciplinary team rather than by a line manager. This reliance can motivate individuals towards higher performance, as they have ownership over their work and the opportunity to maximise application of their skills and experience.
Roles in a multidisciplinary team
Roles within an MDT will vary with the specifics of the challenge they’re addressing and where the project or service is in its lifecycle. However, at its core, a multidisciplinary team is likely to comprise someone who:
- understands the challenges users face and the needs they have (a user researcher)
- can interpret the user needs and lead ideation of solutions that address them (a service designer and content designer, perhaps an interaction designer)
- represents the team or department that needs their problem solved (a service owner)
- prioritises user needs and ensures the output stays true to the vision (a product owner)
- organises the team towards high performance (a delivery manager)
The roles within a multidisciplinary team flex according to the stage in the product (or problem) lifecycle. For example, in discovery, the team is busy exploring the problem and so a user researcher is essential. During ideation, the skills of a service designer who can see how the different parts of a whole problem interact are crucial. At other stages, and depending on the chosen solution, developers, interaction designers, content strategists or other practitioners might need to dial up their investment.
A team that creates together stays together
Success does not peak at launch. Multidisciplinary teams should retain ownership of their product or service after it has launched. As additional priorities or tasks are uncovered, the MDT turns its focus towards continuous delivery to ensure the product stays relevant to evolving user needs.
Susan McFarland-Lyons is a delivery manager working on CDPS’s Digital Service Standards team
- The team (UK Government Digital Service)
- Create and empower an interdisciplinary team (Digital Government New Zealand)
- Have a multidisciplinary team (Australian Digital Transformation Agency)