The value of multidisciplinary teams

Dave Mann, CEO at dxw explores the value of multidisciplinary teams and how they offer a way to avoid the failures of the past and build better services for users.

Posted 13 July 2023 by Christine Horton

The last few years have shown just how much we all rely on public services and that expectations are rightly high when it comes to their quality and effectiveness. Given the continued pressure to deliver better services and make efficiencies, how does the public sector stop building services that generate failure demand and channel its money and effort for the benefit of those who need it most?

Modern ways of working, build better services

It’s impossible for anyone to be an expert in every single facet of their field. That’s why across the NHS and other healthcare systems around the world, there are teams made up of different disciplines that work together to provide a better standard of care. This use of multidisciplinary teams has a direct parallel to the digital design and delivery of public services. It’s about embedding a range of expertise in your team and having shared goals and objectives that bring clarity of purpose, so everyone is pulling in the same direction.

Multidisciplinary teams are more effective, agile and responsive because they have all the capabilities you need in one place and a clear focus on user needs. Successful multidisciplinary teams also include specialists from non-technical fields. Programmes and projects rely on collaboration between procurement and delivery, for example. By joining forces, digital teams have a solid contractual foundation to work from.

The situation on the ground

The reality is, of course, far more complicated. The demands of the Government Service Standard which is designed to help teams create and run better public services – and includes the need for multidisciplinary teams, often collide head-on with the operational reality that many organisations face. Shrinking budgets, constraints on hiring and headcount, retention issues and political pressure.

The current lack of multidisciplinary working hints at a wider problem in the public sector digital space. For a few years now, we’ve been seeing trends in the industry that have diminished our capability in public service delivery.

We have seen the return of huge contracts for government IT, coupled with fewer and fewer outcome-based procurements. Contracts have got bigger and yet more vague. Work is often packaged up into large chunks, so that individual projects can be carved out and resourced at very short notice. This makes it incredibly difficult to carry out genuine multidisciplinary working.

Partnering with a supplier that has a large workforce can be comforting and certainly helps to tick boxes, but does it actually work? There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that it doesn’t, especially if you read through the National Audit Office archives.

Never underestimate the value of a team

These huge contracts demonstrate a return to classic big IT program thinking. The theory is that if you define objectives and tasks clearly enough and closely manage output then you can slot individuals into massive programmes. Individuals work through their tasks, tick them off and move on. Something gets deployed, it may or may not meet a user need and if you multiply this across a programme with hundreds of people working in this way, you’ve got all the ingredients of a classic IT disaster.

When organisations put a small number of big contracts in place and staff teams based on numbers of individuals, they become unable to create healthy joins between disciplines such as software engineering, user research, design, product management and delivery. Multidisciplinary teams give you a richness of collaboration and an established way of working, and can and will move faster and deliver much more value.

What next?

Right now, we’re staring down the barrel of yet more public sector austerity, so efficiency has never been more important. We need to make the most of scarce resources. The public sector can’t go on spending money on services that generate more problems than they solve. Whether that’s through inefficient workarounds at the staff end or failure demand because people simply can’t use the services they rely on.

Multidisciplinary teams that rapidly deliver services around user needs are an efficient way to tackle this fundamental problem. And once services are live, a multidisciplinary team has the skills and capability to iterate a service based on what actually happens when people start using it. Iteration and release cycles can be far quicker than in more traditional IT environments.

We’re seeing a lot of capability contracts at the moment for individual disciplines and skills. Done right, they can be used to deploy whole teams rather than individuals. With digital service suppliers providing the capability of highly functioning multidisciplinary delivery teams. Operating in this way means teams are able to work effectively from the outset and at the end of the project, you’re left with an upskilled internal team, a transformed way of working and services that meet the needs of the people who use them. 

Ultimately, it’s about starting small and building out. Scale when you’re ready and the foundations are firmly in place. It’s far easier to scale a programme based on smaller component parts that already work for your users, than starting with a huge army of individuals and attempting to deliver through contract management.

Organisations, both public and private, collectively spend millions of pounds on team building exercises because everything in the modern workplace revolves around functioning teams. This must be the key takeaway for anyone shaping a large digital programme in government today.