How to be an interdisciplinary leader—and why public health outcomes depend on it.

How to be an interdisciplinary leader—and why public health outcomes depend on it.
By Andrew Ritcheson
Aug 12, 2021
Today’s consequential biomedical and behavioral challenges do not belong to single disciplines. Interdisciplinary leadership offers a new approach to combine expertise and create breakthrough solutions.
Curing cancer. Overcoming the opioid crisis. Addressing the impacts of the pandemic. Today’s public health challenges are far too complex and multi-faceted to be solved by one discipline alone and require an interdisciplinary team.
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What is an interdisciplinary team?
An interdisciplinary team is more than a team of experts. It is an expert team that collaborates as a flexible heterarchy—each team member enjoying the same level of authority and leadership—focused on developing novel solutions that occur at the junctures between disciplines.

Biomedical settings offer compelling evidence for the value of interdisciplinary teams and their impact on the quality and safety of clinical care. Research indicates that team-based failures are a major, independent, contributing factor to poor health outcomes, and “ineffective care coordination and the underlying suboptimal teamwork processes are a public health issue.” Whether for biomedical research or clinical care, tough challenges require creating, sustaining, and training interdisciplinary teams that function beyond traditional disciplinary demarcations.

In the biomedical space, it can be daunting to form and lead an interdisciplinary team and improve how it organizes, communicates, and collaborates. Early in a team’s interdisciplinary journey, the onus is on the leader to imbue the enterprise with the necessary energy, structure, development, and management. Although interdisciplinary team development and leadership strategies are highly individual, there are moves leadership, team members, and team levels can make to better support positive outcomes.

Here are four best practices that leaders can adopt to bring together specialists from an array of disciplines—and inspire them to work together to improve public health outcomes.

1. Develop favorable interpersonal conditions

Leaders must work to cultivate and promote a condition of psychological safety and ensure team members have a shared understanding and expectation of trust, respect, openness, communication, and shared learning. Leaders should establish selflessness and unity of force within their team by aligning around a clear and well-communicated mission, vision, and intent.

2. Provide sufficient scaffolding

Leaders of interdisciplinary teams are also their key architects. As teams are stood up and grown, they require an active and ever-changing configuration of scaffolding to hold the structure together (e.g., continuous process improvement, a culture of continual learning, IM/IT, and other infrastructure). That support will help build the foundation required for robust and sustainable collaboration. Scaffolding is easier to accomplish within a deliberate environment of continuous improvement, where the responsibility for identifying and making change is distributed.

Forming and leading interdisciplinary teams requires leaders to show up with enough firepower and commitment to create the reactions that move the team beyond simply being a team of experts, to being an expert team.

3. Grow the team's skills 

Interdisciplinarity is not in our nature, and maintenance of the status quo culture—where one develops, protects, and operates according to one's expertise—often wins out. It is critical, as an interdisciplinary leader, to encourage team members to not only develop their expertise but also to look beyond to other disciplines—and to the rich, innovative spaces that lay in-between. Promote a mindfulness-based awareness of disciplinary junctures and interplay to help teams learn, build a common culture and language, and disrupt long-held disciplinary-defensive positions and information privilege.

4. Shape team behaviors

Although it’s a noun, ‘interdisciplinarity’ is best thought of as an active verb. Be open to change and lead with diversity and inclusion top of mind. Empower less vocal team members to interact plainly, without jargon. Deliberately encourage communication in contexts where psychological safety is low, and hierarchical norms appear strong. Promote intentional listening, and explicit, real-time, team-based reasoning. Incentivize curiosity and getting to know your neighbors. Recognize that some team members have inherently less propensity towards teamwork, and may have roles or tasks that benefit from greater disciplinary focus. Take time to identify and acknowledge interdisciplinary accomplishments, and set aside the time and space needed for effective team debriefs and reflection.

How to breakthrough

When faced with tough problems, leaders in the biomedical and behavioral ecosystem have a choice in which sort of team they want to create. Developing and managing an interdisciplinary team challenges the inertia that comes with poorly integrated and siloed teams. Team members, given a choice, are usually protective of their area of expertise and not energized by reaching across disciplines and encountering subjects in which they do not have specialized knowledge. It takes active and energetic leadership to catalyze the sorts of individual and team behaviors, skills, and co-creation that lead to interdisciplinary breakthroughs. Forming and leading interdisciplinary teams requires leaders to show up with enough firepower and commitment to create the reactions that move the team beyond simply being a team of experts, to being an expert team.

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Meet the author
  1. Andrew Ritcheson, Vice President, Public Health Leader

    Andrew is an expert in supporting complex organizations and leading sophisticated interdisciplinary teams in delivering value and innovation in aid of better health outcomes. View bio