Improved Project Delivery Through Diverse and Interdisciplinary Teams

Why Embracing Your Differences Leads to Better Project Outcomes

Author: CJ Eliasen

Editor’s note: CJ Eliasen is one of our most senior consultants, and he brings a great range of experience.  Currently finishing his Masters in Private Interest, Public Good at Xavier University, CJ has worked in sustainability and economics.  He’s also a successful drummer who plays all over the Midwest.

For this article, CJ wanted to explore the value of diverse consulting teams.  One of our core values is “co-creation” -- the principle that better ideas, better plans, and better results come about when people from all sides of the situation create it together.  CJ saw the benefits of co-creation first hand in a recent project.  

Econogy’s interdisciplinary approach means that project team members usually have widely different backgrounds, both in terms of culture and academic discipline.  A typical team might include analytics, economics, sustainable technologies, industrial design, and more.  The intentional choice to create teams of this type initially results in a chasm between team members, who come to the project with different jargon, assumptions, and approaches to teamwork.

This starting disconnect can create an underlying sense of awkwardness that may manifest itself in multiple forms, including hesitance to engage in problem-solving, lack of collegiality, and/or lack of diligence.  However, when the team is placed in circumstances that involve some sense of urgency, we consistently discover  that the members find ways to bridge these chasms. Making that leap creates a unique learning process: project team members learn through necessity to relate more effectively, both to each other and to the client, and the process accelerates the team’s ability to synthesize differing perspectives. When faced with adversity, a diverse project team must disregard their differences and begin leveraging their unique skillsets to best serve the client.  

 

[About one recent project, CJ writes:]

Over the course of the project, we saw a few examples of team diversity in action.  For instance, one of our team members had an experience in customer mapping, consumer research, and market research.  Because of his background, we were able to conduct customer interviews and generate consumer insights with a high level of rigor, providing the project with a basis in science.  This led to an increased ability to use complex analytical tools during the Discovery phase of the project, in which we assess and apply a number of key metrics to a business model.  A team that included a typical collection of business strategists would have lacked the capacity to uncover the user insights that that gave the strategy a strong foundation.

A consulting team’s ethnic and gender diversity also plays a crucial role in enabling more innovative and insightful advising, In fact, when we first met with Bower & Branch’s owner and CEO, each expressed explicit interest in hiring a diverse team that would mirror their customer base.  For us, this meant being well-represented in terms of both cultural, ethnic, and gender backgrounds.  Fortunately, this was not a challenge for us.  Not only did this assuage our client’s fears of being misinformed or misrepresented by our work, but it allowed us to approach the project from each of our unique lenses….

Research further suggests that teams with complex and variegated personal backgrounds tend to intuitively avoid groupthink, which stifles creativity and leads to emotionally driven problem-solving.  Diverse teams not only avoid a self-imposed echo chamber, but they tend to engage in more factually-based analysis.  Because they cannot fall back on a shared set of unexamined assumptions, teams that are highly differentiated are forced to make their arguments both to each other and to their clients, and defend them with a higher degree of rigor. 

The strength of a diverse team - oddly enough - may be that diversity forces team members to question both their own viewpoints and the viewpoints of others.  Though insecurity may prove uncomfortable at first, the phenomenon creates a self-imposed need to fact-check both yourself and other team members.  Furthermore, the divergence among team members that this creates leads to an amalgamation of facts and opinions that were less likely to come to the surface otherwise.  Often, this amalgamation is more accurate and comprehensive than it would have been if every team member held the same worldview.

 

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CJ Eliasen

Leads our project management team and coaches new talent on understanding client needs.  He holds a Masters degree in Private Interest, Public Good from Xavier University.  He's also a sustainability specialist and a darn good drummer