Why multidisciplinary teams need onions

Small is beautiful when it comes to service delivery – and a certain everyday vegetable forms the perfect model, writes Pete Stanton

27 January 2022

What makes a multidisciplinary team so great?

Following a similar ethos to the Jeff Bezos ‘two pizza rule’ (never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group), a small, multidisciplinary team can work more productively, and faster, than a larger one – as we discussed in a post last week about a Natural Resources Wales discovery (the initial research phase of a project) on hazardous waste treatment.

The origins of the small, multidisciplinary team approach came from Japanese manufacturing in the 1950s, with firms such as Toyota and Honda using small, empowered, mixed teams working in experimental iterations towards a clear outcome – the technique that became known as ‘Agile delivery’. 

A team working in a car factory
Agile service design has its origins in innovative team working in the automobile industry © Carlos Aranda/Unsplash

Move the scenario from car manufacturing to, say, a government department and the same rules apply. A multidisciplinary team assigned to a specific task or problem often prevails because:  

These strengths make multidisciplinary teams central to the Digital Service Standards for Wales

Splicing the onion 

Multidisciplinary teams can, in turn, reap benefits from a support and collaboration network modelled on that ever-useful vegetable, the onion. 

For a multidisciplinary team to succeed, it needs wider support within an organisation. If a team is siloed from the rest of the business, it can hamper communication and eventually slow down delivery.  

How to address that risk? Enter the team onion…  

In the ‘onion’ model, a small central team builds relationships with collaborators and supporters

Originated by the Agile practitioner Emily Webber, a team onion is a way of getting core functions within an organisation (for example, legal, policy, finance, communication) involved in a project’s mission without:  

In its simplest form, a team onion breaks down like this:  

Core (multidisciplinary) team  

Collaborators (who might be working with several teams):

Supporters

Pete Stanton is Delivery Manager for the Natural Resources Wales hazardous waste discovery project

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