February 2021 | Point of View

The promise of agile, multidisciplinary teams is real

The project management approach rooted in siloes is outdated—and not working. It’s time to consider a new way.

Early in the 21st century, a new realization swept corporate America: Every company is a tech company. We’ve known for a while that to stay competitive, organizations of every size, in every industry, must embrace digital technology to engage customers, create efficiencies, and innovate new products and services. 

Now, in the century’s third decade, it’s becoming apparent that digital transformation isn’t only about technology. It’s about relying on multidisciplinary teams that work together to challenge businesses to consider how every process, whether internal operations or external touchpoint, can be fine-tuned with data to deliver the seamless brand, product, and sales experiences that consumers and employees have come to expect in the digital age. 

For business leaders, that means building teams through the lens of an experience vs. a function. Carl Liebert, COO of the auto insurance giant USAA, puts it this way in Harvard Business Review: “I want to walk into an auditorium and ask, ‘Who owns the member’s change-of-address experience?’ And I want a clear and confident response from a team that owns that experience, whether a member is calling us, logging into our website on a laptop, or using our mobile app. No finger-pointing. No answers that begin with ‘It’s complicated.’” 

Multidisciplinary teams constantly assess how their products are used, how their customers and employees are reacting, and how their experience is functioning. 

At West Monroe, we have embraced multidisciplinary (MD) teams hyper-focused on creating products and experiences desired by both employees and customers, and a clear understanding that they are never done in responding to our clients’ shifting needs. Our teams are made up of industry experts, technologists, and functional experts, like mergers and acquisitions or human capital management. 

The value MD teams can deliver is undeniable. And we’ve come to believe that leaders in every industry should consider MD teams as an alternative to traditional siloed departments, and as the way forward for business. Here’s why.

More holistic teams lead to solutions that work

If multidisciplinary teams are the “better” way, what is happening right now that’s not working? The answer is siloed and temporary “project” teams that act more as a committee.  

Take a bank seeking to implement a digital peer-to-peer payment capability. The bank might assemble a committee from familiar departments—IT, marketing, operations, finance, legal—working under a project sponsor assigned to ensure the product comes to fruition. The sponsor will assign technical work to the IT team and call on regulatory experts when compliance questions arise. Other supporting disciplines will also be called on for discrete support, but never invited to collaborate on designing the solution, or asked for input beyond their particular areas of expertise. 

The outcome of this traditional siloed team approach is too often a Frankenstein-like product that addresses the discrete concerns of the siloed departments but does little to benefit the customer. And following launch, the team disbands, returning to their departments and old duties, leaving nobody to iterate based on user and performance data. 

Delivering a solution that truly works—an intuitive transaction experience, effective customer support, integration with the bank’s money-handling processes and full regulatory compliance—requires far more than a one-off assembled team from various departments. 

A multidisciplinary team for peer-to-peer payments might include payments experts, software developers, a UX/UI designer, and a regulatory expert. Together they would design and implement a solution that functioned smoothly for customers at every stage of the purchasing process, generating results in customer engagement and revenue growth. 

More importantly, their responsibilities wouldn’t end with launch but would include monitoring and improving the payment system so long as it remained in use.  

But setting up a true MD team is step one. To create tangible value for an organization, that team must be unified by a common mission, set of goals, and way of working.

Agile teams deliver better solutions for complex problems 

The longer and more fluid a multidisciplinary team, the better the end result. Our MD, agile teams confront complex problems by breaking them into modules, developing solutions to each component through rapid prototyping and tight feedback loops, and integrating the solutions into a coherent whole. 

This is an ongoing process designed to move fast. Agile planning and goal development asks MD teams to determine the maximum amount of value that can be delivered and tested in a short time span, ideally three months. A rapidly shifting market offers a short window in which to launch, test, produce value (or not), and then iterate and improve in the next cycle. 

While MD teams don’t have to be agile, agile teams are multidisciplinary by nature; small and entrepreneurial, they are designed to stay close to customers and adapt quickly to changing conditions. And, it’s the combination of the two where the ability to deliver financial value— fast—goes up exponentially. “When implemented correctly, they almost always result in higher team productivity and morale, faster time to market, better quality, and lower risk than traditional approaches can achieve,” according to Harvard Business Review.

Let’s say a regional big box retailer wants to implement curbside pickup capabilities at 10 locations in three states. This kind of experiential effort requires the expertise not only in online and mobile shopping, but also in how optimizing traffic flow in and around store parking lots. 

An agile MD team might include a dozen people representing supply chain, logistics, technology, user experience, in-store support, and customer service. Together, they would form the curbside pickup team, responsible for every integrated touch point along the way. That collective accountability increases the likelihood that a holistic solution will emerge, and it gives leadership confidence that the team will drive forward in collaboration.

Allina Health, a Minnesota-based health system, took a multidisciplinary approach when it overhauled its online services to deliver safer, faster care for patients and to compete in a digital-first world. They convened agile, multidisciplinary teams—made up of technologists and functional experts from IT, marketing, design, and finance—to run regular design sprints and produce a steady stream of new digital capabilities. 

Allina has reduced costs through online appointment booking, increased revenue through online bill pay, and improved patient care and satisfaction by providing transparency around wait times and procedure prep. As each new service undergoes rapid prototyping, testing, and improvement, the iteration never stops. Alina’s commitment to continuous delivery is emblematic of the shift happening in the most competitive, forward-thinking companies

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Defining success by competitive advantage and results, not activity and launch

Projects are defined periods of time with a start and end. Too often, project success is thought to be achieved at launch. But a product or experience for your customers or employees, developed to solve a particular problem, is an ongoing effort. And measuring and iterating based on how well the solution performs is never-ending.

To achieve this, organizations must turn to data. The data gained during this ongoing process will illuminate how products are used, how customers react, and the impact on the bottom line. When MD, agile teams leverage this knowledge, companies can make smarter decisions, and ideally establish a foundation down the road for integrating algorithms to make even smarter, faster decisions.

Success is not launch, it is achieving the business results that the product was designed to achieve – and then replicating and building on that achievement over time.

This is what is called “continuous delivery.” With this orientation, an organization can set itself up for continuous delivery of upgraded products, services, and experiences for its stakeholders. 

Keeping multidisciplinary teams together across new problems and, in our case, new clients, also enable the individuals to learn each other’s disciplines and understand how best to work together as they move from product to product. 

We’ve put a stake in the ground on financial ROI for our clients. We believe that as every aspect of business undergoes digital transformation, delivering that ROI requires taking advantage of technology in every aspect of the solutions we design. And we believe that it’s critical to extend the definition of success beyond launch, to truly query how the new product or service is performing. Is curbside pickup increasing revenue? Did customer engagement increase? Is the service still in use six months later, a year?

Too often consulting engagements are seen as a transactional exchange—dollars for project deliverables. And too often those deliverables are achieved by subdividing projects among various disciplines who work in parallel, but not in concert. The outdated project management approach pervades far beyond the consulting business. And we believe it’s time that businesses of all kinds consider a new way. (We did.) 

Conclusion

Companies must move beyond the traditional pillars of project management—scope, schedule, and budget—to think holistically about the business problem that needs to be solved and the desired end result. 

By deploying MD teams, they can deploy the organization’s full breadth of expertise to solve a problem from the very beginning. These teams are uniquely positioned to challenge each other and uncover new ways of delivering value to end users. By keeping those teams together – through launch and beyond – they can build on success, generating incremental improvements and growth over time. 

That’s the promise of multidisciplinary teams.  

Tom Bolger

As West Monroe’s Chief Strategy Officer, Tom is responsible for the firm’s long-term strategic planning, innovation, and corporate development, and partnerships.

Casey Foss

As Chief Marketing Officer, Casey leads strategic client, brand, and market engagement programs designed to produce double-digit annual revenue growth.

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