Published in Business -

Zoo vs beehive: the key things you need in a team to deliver high quality innovation, quickly and consistently.

If you’ve got a compelling problem to solve, research suggests you’ll benefit from replicating an open-range zoo, rather than immediately getting busy as a beehive.

This is largely because zoos are analogous to multidisciplinary teams, while beehives are more homogenous in makeup.

A multidisciplinary team sees members combine several unique specialisms—whether academic, cultural, professional or otherwise—to work on solving problems together.

This can be contrasted with teams that are more like a beehive. Different types of bees exist and play varying roles within the hive, but ultimately, they are all one species of bee. They only communicate with other bees.

Beehives are synonymous with productivity, but if you’re looking to hit consistently higher levels of innovation, profitability, and other key business metrics, the zoo is proven as the better approach.

A zoo, in a team, in an office.

Teams can be multidisciplinary in many ways. At August, specialists with different crafts work together in self-sufficient collaborative units. Designers, content strategists, front end developers, systems engineers, analysts, and other disciplines are all represented within teams.

Beyond personnel, multidisciplinary teams also work in distinctive modes to add another layer of specialisation to the mix.

One team might work exclusively on greenfield product development. This team builds new products from scratch while delivering end-to-end projects in quickfire engagements.

Another team will work as an extension of an organisation’s marketing function. They’ll deliver new features for established products, assess the efficacy of campaigns and initiatives, and prioritise the development of new activity in response to ongoing organisational developments.

There are myriad reasons for this structure:

  • Teams are able to hone their skills in relation to the unique requirements of a specific mode. Researching and building a completely new product in five weeks involves entirely different skills than sustaining and evolving a product over the course of three years.
  • Clients are able to work with both teams concurrently, without compromising their ability to make progress on any one equally crucial objective. For example, an organisation could build a new website or digital service platform while maintaining a detailed program of mission-critical marketing activity.
  • This approach adds another layer to the diversity of the makeup of teams. Diversity in multidisciplinary teams is proven to drive better results for problem solving and innovation.

Multidisciplinary teams are more effective, for many reasons.

Greater variety in the zoo facilitates greater business success.

How—and why—is this the case?

Diverse teams are more likely to have a comprehensive coverage of a range of valuable attitudes and perspectives.

Over many decades of combined experience working with companies pursuing innovation-led growth, researchers Matt Banholzer, Fabian Mezeler and Erik Roth identified the ten traits that distinguish the most successful innovators. You can read more about these traits and their findings here.

The innovation talent wheel, above, illustrates the ten key traits of effective innovation teams.

The researchers note that ‘while many of these capabilities are well-recognised, we have seen that reframing the discussion from individuals to teams helps tremendously to unlock performance in organisations.’

The more diverse the composition of your team—or the greater number of animals in the zoo—the more likely you are to have more comprehensive coverage across the factors that determine and inform successful innovation.

Non-homogenous teams can make each other smarter.

This article by David Rock and Heidi Grant presents a body of research that confirms working in non-homogenous teams can make you smarter as an individual.

By working with people who bring different experiences and perspectives to your own, your brain is challenged to sharpen its performance and overcome stale ways of thinking.

There are new challenges, new interaction dynamics, and new cognitive patterns to navigate when working with a diverse team. The research suggests that navigating these challenges collectively leads to a higher quality of innovation and ultimately more effective problem solving overall.

Additionally, studies suggest that diverse teams place more emphasis on facts and assess them more discerningly. Diverse teams make fewer assumptions and ask more genuine questions in order to overcome the variance that exists in members’ views or understanding of a problem.

Good work is hard, and hard work is good.

Innovation isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would adopt the practice and it would ultimately cease to be innovative.

When you have teams that are all similarly minded, with similar perspectives, experiences, and capabilities, it’s easier to arrive at solutions quickly. This might sound beneficial but isn’t necessarily always positive.

Homogenous teams feel easier. Ironically, because of that feeling of ease, their performance and output is comparatively worse when compared with diverse multidisciplinary teams.

While this goes against common intuition, it highlights the effect of the fluency heuristic. Developed by psychologists, this cognitive bias suggests that people prefer information that is easier to process quickly and judge it more reliable or superior as a result.

Homogenous teams may come to agreement and move forward quickly, albeit while falling prey to the fluency heuristic.

Conversely, diverse multidisciplinary teams can feel challenging to navigate. Communication can be difficult. There may be a greater spread of proposed ideas and options to navigate. This can feel slow and unproductive. In reality though, it’s the creative tension that plays a crucial role in delivering impactful work.

This article references a 2009 study where it was discovered that firms with more racial or gender diversity generated more sales revenue, more customers, and greater profits.

Another study highlights that adding one unique person to a homogenous team improved that team’s probability of arriving at the correct solution when solving problems, positively impacting its chances from 29% to 60%.

Diversity isn’t a panacea in and of itself: established structures and processes for teamwork are equally vital.

It’s essential to note that simply making a team more diverse does not guarantee results. Diverse teams must also find ways to work together productively and to manage the variability of their perspectives. This can take time.

It’s also worth noting that a strong sense of team and organisational inclusion—and psychological safety—is key to unlock the benefits associated with a diverse, multidisciplinary approach.

Well-practiced multidisciplinary teams are well worth engaging.

Many organisations are taking steps to insource their own capability when it comes to multidisciplinary teams.

While this can be successful, there are many benefits associated with engaging well-practiced high performing teams, rather than building them yourself.

These can include:

  1. Navigating the risk of inadvertently building a homogenous team while trying to create a multidisciplinary team.
  2. Mitigating the time it takes for an insourced multidisciplinary team to develop rhythm, cadence, and collective problem-solving capability.
  3. Leveraging established processes for collaboration and problem solving. By working with teams that already know how to work together, you spend more team on creativity and solution design, and less wasted energy on determining the processes involved with delivery.
  4. Avoiding the trickle-down effect of a ‘dysfunctional top layer’. For certain organisations, there’s also this excellent presentation from design thought-leader Kim Goodwin to consider. Here, Kim highlights that any dysfunction at the top of a hierarchy is likely to permeate and impact the multiple siloes and teams that exist beneath that layer. In a practical sense, where there is dysfunction within a leadership team, that dysfunction will likely impact all teams underneath the leadership layer. Even if you build a successful multidisciplinary team within your organisation, it can still be impacted and undermined by macro forces that exist at the highest levels of the business.

For ambitious projects, you need a high-functioning multidisciplinary team.

If you’re on the cusp of an ambitious idea or complex project—like building the world’s first community networking and support platform for people with low vision or blindness, a sophisticated publishing tool for global animal rights advocacy, or a 3D ecommerce experience for custom performance apparel—the research suggests you’ll benefit enormously from working with a well-practiced and high functioning multidisciplinary team.

For more information on getting the most out of teams, working in collaborative dynamics, or just to chat about your idea or project, get in touch and let’s tee up a conversation.

Let’s chat about your project

We may not work much like a beehive, but you can always give us a buzz too.