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Interdisciplinary teams: Turning conflict into innovation

Originally published by Computerwoche magazine (German only)

Interdisciplinary teams solve complex problems with a high level of performance potential. But collaboration is rarely without differences.

Interdisciplinary teams have a high potential for conflict.
Heterogeneity is a double-edged sword, because high performance often goes hand in hand with high potential for conflict.

Diversity is often seen as the secret to successful teamwork - a source of innovation, improved performance and satisfied customers. Even Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, recognized the enormous potential of diversity when he said: "The greater the contrast, the greater the potential. Great energy comes only from a correspondingly great tension of opposites". All too often, however, it is overlooked that diversity also has a high potential for conflict. Paradoxically, despite their high performance potential, interdisciplinary teams can become the weakest teams.

Interdisciplinary cooperation - A conflict rarely comes alone

The reality of interdisciplinary teams is often not a swirling flow of ideas, but rather a quagmire of artificial harmony or internal strife. Rather than focusing on customers, projects and solutions, many become distracted by internal matters or tend to become a community that suppresses diversity in order to maintain a feel-good atmosphere. This means that these interdisciplinary teams are far from being the predestined problem solvers of our time, outperforming the competition with differentiated problem analysis and creative solutions.

High-performing interdisciplinary teams practice constructive discourse. Team members bring their diverse opinions, skills, and experiences to the table, even if they are not always applauded for doing so. They do not withhold differing opinions for fear of rejection, but rather engage in solution-oriented discussions to achieve the best possible results. Such teams do not take pride in their harmony, but rather identify themselves through, for example, intellectual challenge, achievement and progress. High-performance teams are not conflict-averse. They enjoy confrontation. However, in order to realise their full potential, the ability to deal with conflict needs to be developed.

Interdisciplinary teams - 5 steps to success

Interdisciplinary teams work best when they learn to manage conflict effectively and sustainably. However, differences do not only have disadvantages, but can also be a source of innovation and growth. How to turn a negative conflict into a positive growth factor is simple. The solution consists of five steps:

1. Keep calm and prepare

In order to be successful in dealing with conflict, it is first necessary to accept conflict as a normal and natural part of life and to have methods of resolution at hand. By anticipating conflicts and being aware of potential sources of conflict at different stages of the project, a team can take countermeasures. Typical sources of conflict include:

  • Vague project goals

  • Different priorities in implementation

  • Different working styles or value systems

In addition, the different characters in the team and their network of relationships need to be clear. In this context, individual emotions often become dangerous accelerants. This can be prevented with targeted preparation and emerging conflicts can be de-escalated in time.

2. Address the issue openly

"Houston, we have a problem" - call it what it is. If there is a tangible conflict, it needs to be addressed. Ignoring, suppressing or denying it will not get you closer to a solution. On the contrary. Conflicts that are simmering in the background often increase the tension and raise the emotions. If team members know how to manage emotions professionally, the conflict will be resolved more quickly. Calling out frustration, anger or disappointment by its name defuses emotionally charged discussions.

3. Analysing needs and desires

The third step is to identify their values, needs and wants. Behind every point of view or position there are values and needs. Respect, recognition and appreciation are just three examples that have a significant influence on the way a person talks or acts.

4. Mutual understanding

If I know that my counterpart values recognition and appreciation, I can sometimes drop a "Thank you, excellent" when they have done a good job. Understanding why your counterpart does things the way they do makes it easier to respond. Common ground creates understanding, trust and a bond. While the different positions of team members separate them, common needs and mutual understanding bring them together.

5. The strength of diversity

Problem solving is the speciality of interdisciplinary teams. Once personal differences have been overcome, they can work towards a common goal. The versatility of the individual team members and the acceptance of this heterogeneity lead to long-term success.

If, despite these steps, no agreement can be reached, mediation by a neutral mediator may be another option. The resolved conflict now opens up space for solution-oriented discussion and innovation, which, as Gustav Jung said, is greatest when we are more diverse.


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