Anyone in a leadership or managerial position knows how difficult it is to manage teams.
You need to take into account the different skill sets and specific expertise, the personalities, and also different understandings of what needs to be prioritised and when.
Yet, at the same time, we are increasingly told that we need to develop very specific expertise and having a great career or developing a great innovation is all about using and investing in that specific expertise.
So how do you balance the quest of creating functioning teams that collaborate yet respect each team member’s unique expertise?
And what are the benefits from increased collaboration vs. more narrow branding of expertise?
Managing and understanding risks through collaboration
I have been particularly impressed by the work done at Arizona State University by Associate Professor Mikhail Chester who is leading some of the thinking around how we understand and measure vulnerability.
What is key in his work is recognising that climate is changing and so how do we actually deal with that in a way that considers a range of complex factors that all interact.
For example, in New York where are the hotspots in terms of biophysical impacts (increases in temperatures, more hot days, more flooding) and where do those with lower socio-economic backgrounds live, where are the elderly, where are the weak spots in transport infrastructure.
By considering a multitude of risks together rather than keeping a one risk focus (e.g. only focusing on flooding), the scientists are able to map those key risks and socio-economic factors across the same area and show how these factors could interact, and which areas are particularly vulnerable.
And this is what we are often missing when people, knowledge and skills become highly specialised: people get very good at solving problems within their area of expertise without necessarily opening up opportunities for innovation.
I am not saying that single disciplines or areas of expertise are not capable of innovating.
There are endless examples where that is exactly the case and where you do need focused attention on a problem within a single discipline in order to provide a solution.
But more and more as our world is growing complex, we also need other ideas, other kinds of expertise to feed into the way we see a problem, and the ways that we would usually go about solving it.
Working across ideas and teams = radical management
For a long time, collaboration within teams and across teams however has not been the status quo but most managers use traditional management (command and control) as a way to manage processes and people.
Stephen Denning’s book “The Leaders Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21stcentury” discusses the core principles as to why we are locked in traditional management and what we can do to break out of it.
He makes a particularly good observation on the potential impact of working in silos:
“We know that teams of experts who are operating in intellectual silos are not performing as well as they might if there was collaboration across areas of expertise. And we know that teams performing work in intellectual silos are maximizing the amount of work in process at any one time…. We also know that if all members of the team are working on “their own things” the work of the team proceeds at a pace of the slowest team member. The possibility of getting more value to the client sooner ceases to be feasible” (p. 153).
I cannot state how many times I have seen this happen, especially in large projects where there are very distinct areas of expertise that are also dependent on each other for outputs.
Yet, this is so traditional management that people seem not to question the (in)feasibility of working in paralell silos:
“The thought that large numbers of clever and talented people working very hard for very long hours are actually working in an unproductive fashion is culturally unacceptable, however intellectually robust that thought may be” (p. 153).
And this is where it gets interesting: for so long, we have accepted a particular way of doing things that it has become a generic rule of thumb that invades “best practice” and how we think about efficiency and effectiveness.
Personal branding and narrowing down expertise
Yet, in a world where we need to stand out and develop a particular set of expertise, paradoxically we also need to be more siloed in our thinking when it comes to branding.
I often get amused looks from other academics when I start talking about personal branding, marketing, and leadership because a) this is not taught at our universities, and b) what does it really matter as long as you tick off the boxes for performance review?
The basic expectation seems to be that we just publish good papers and become world famous on those grounds.
It is rare that we even have executive coaching and for those of us who recognise the value of executive coaching in developing better leadership skills and how to manage teams, we have to find it outside universities.
I for example was lucky enough to participate in the Coaching for Leaders Academy 2017-2018 that is a 12-motnh long leadership and executive coaching program.
Executive coaching is not mentoring, it is not about teaching you how to get a promotion but it is an in-depth experience in personal development that hones your leadership and management skills.
It is also installing a winning mindset that you can; you can navigate difficult institutional issues, navigate career choices and increase your emotional intelligence.
The Academy been one of the reasons why I have been able to develop my leadership skills but also have gained confidence in knowing that I am progressing in my career path, and that there are different more inclusive and effective ways to manage teams and idea development.
Standing out from the crowd
But let’s look at what sits at the core of personal branding.
Personal branding is all about how to stand out in a crowded world and how to start making a difference with your ideas.
The first rule of branding is to know yourself, find your unique expertise and then start figuring how you can stand out.
When I have been doing thinking around this, I find Dorie Clark and her book Stand Out incredibly helpful and have recommended the book to many of my friends and colleagues.
Dorie has a knack in explaining in a thoughtful manner what most professionals would like to know: how do you stand out especially in an era where our world is already so crowded with experts on every single thing?
What makes such thinking unique is that in order to find our personal brand and the big ideas we want to commit ourselves to, we need to know what is out there.
We need to understand what other ideas are already circulating, how we contribute to what is already there (or not there), and how what we think is a big idea can be unique enough while building on the already diverse set of ideas.
Getting your idea out there: the role of consistency and gratitude
But once you have a stellar idea, you need to figure out how you get the word out on your idea or product.
Thales Teixeira from Harvard Business School notes in Harvard Biz episode 676 how it’s not important to immediately scale up but to do something much more mundane yet crucial:
To focus on your first 1000 customers/followers and seeing each customer with gratitude; as an opportunity to learn why they find your idea or product interesting or what they think could be improved.
Rather than trying to scale up straight away and become an overnight’s success, you need to do the hard yards of learning first:
“If you’re trying to learn how to walk and you look at Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet and try to observe how he’s running and say, “I’m going to do the same thing.” It’s not going to work. Why? Because you’re at a completely different phase in your life.”
And the exact same principle applies to branding: focus on honing your brand, be consistent in presenting its uniqueness via whatever channels you choose to use, and be glad with each new follower that you are doing something right.
Dorie Clark for example shares in her Entrepreneurial You book that she wrote blogs for over two years without seeing any significant return for investment other than learning in the process.
But these blogs and her other writing in outlets such as Harvard Business Review convinced publishers that she can write and also write consistently.
Uniqueness of the whole
Working in adaptation science is utterly fascinating for me because we have long ago realised that no one discipline can solve issues relating to climate change.
We need all kinds of data, expertise, skills, and values in order to solve big complex problems like how is a low-lying coastal city supposed to adapt the multiple risks of climate change.
We need planners, engineers, economists, policymakers, insurance industry, tourism, infrastructure specialists, social scientists, health experts, waste management professionals, local community groups, you name it.
Without involving a range of disciplines and knowledge bases, we will fall short on coming up with big ideas but also doing our due diligence in understanding the many risks, opportunities, and challenges that we face.
So the key message really is that true innovation comes from interactions between different ideas, disciplines and people.
Yet, each individual needs to be aware of their unique ideas, skills and ways they can contribute and create an even better whole.
The aim of being uniquely coherent is to create a shared vision across the team in a way that emphasises each members’ uniqueness that contributes to the whole.