Managing a multidisciplinary team: automotive designers and engineers

Managing multidisciplinary teams in the automotive industry: image showing a team of designers and engineers working together

When two engineers scratch out a design on a whiteboard, they are collaborating. When team members meet to brainstorm a design, they are collaborating. When team leaders meet to decide whether a product is ready to ship, they are collaborating. The result of any collaboration can be categorized as a tangible deliverable, a decision, or shared knowledge.
― Jim Highsmith,
Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products

Today, software plays a central role in process management. Ways of working have shifted. Automotive organizations are moving away from large, siloed departments and towards smaller, multidisciplinary teams where individuals are empowered by advanced tooling and collaborative platforms. All this is designed to meet the increasing consumer expectations around UX, so that teams can maximize their abilities to collaborate and innovate in a competitive landscape.

Studies show this is both efficient for business and engaging for employees. Multidisciplinary teams are more able to innovate, develop, prototype and test, and communicate, creating faster time to market and better-performing outcomes. But managing these teams can be challenging. You have to plan for different motivations, goals and processes. Then, find consensus in a setup that is designed to encourage disparate voices.

Here are six tips for driving tangible, joined-up outcomes in multidisciplinary teams:

1.   Establish a problem definition

Personally, I’d like to see more of our leaders take a technocratic approach to solving our biggest problems. – Bill Gates

There are many ways to measure success when it comes to automotive technology. In a multidisciplinary team, good intentions can lead to people setting over-complicated targets.

A manager’s job in this situation is to define the problem you need to solve, establish and reiterate goals, figure out where, when and how to measure progress, and continuously communicate that information within the team. As long as you remain on the same page, your creative vision will inspire actions that get the job done.

2.   Be (or have) a ‘wise generalist’

Here’s a common frustration:  a team member with a manager who doesn’t have much – or even any – experience in the discipline they are managing.

According to Pabini Gabriel-Petit, Editor in Chief at UXmatters, a department head or project leader must ‘speak the language’ and have some awareness of capabilities, dependencies and reasonable expectations for every person within a team. Without this knowledge, they’ll fail to spot problems or make timely progress on the project.

A recent YouGov and MHR survey of more than two thousand respondents reveals 75 percent of workers have considered leaving their job due to bad management, and 55 percent have actually done so during their career.

While a generalist in a management role doesn’t have to be a multidisciplinary expert (a tall order for most people), they do need to have developed leadership skills to navigate the ‘human’ side of the job. Armed with a basic understanding of what ‘good’ looks like, they can recognize efforts with feedback. A Cicero Group study found that ‘more than twice as many employees are highly engaged among those who receive strong performance recognition’ compared to those do not receive that level of feedback.

3.   Promote deep understanding of neighboring roles

Though a manager might be the only generalist, in a team of multiple disciplines, colleagues who adopt a mindset of continuous learning about different roles will also stand to benefit. They don’t need to know about every field but, rather, they should be open to discovering as much as possible about their closest collaborators.

For example, in the automotive industry, designers and developers tend to be grappling with the same problem from different angles; one is focused on user experience, the other concerned with functionality. In fact, we’ve written previously about how technical and design collaboration in automotive HMI (human machine interface) development can become a role in itself.

The more these experts know about one another’s processes and needs, the more rapidly they can iterate prototypes that fit the bill for everyone.

4.   Find the strengths in cultural friction

People are drawn to roles not just because they like doing what they do, but because they enjoy how they get to think and work in certain fields. This can create cultures around disciplines: the sales team is more outgoing and thrives under pressure; designers appreciate time and space to explore creative options, and so on.

The challenge, from a management perspective, is reconciling these differences within a team, and it is worth doing so. Companies with diverse teams are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above the industry median, according to a McKinsey study. So, if cultures are clashing, lean in to that friction rather than trying to find safer shores – often, that’s when the best innovations come to light.

5.   Change workflows for innovation vs production

In his book Agile Project Management, Jim Highsmith says that ‘efficiency delivers products and services that we can think of’ and innovation delivers ‘what we can imagine’.

Before embarking on a project, a manager will need to prioritize ways of working over others to best suit the project or phase of the project, whether that be for exploration or production. Though – of course – a workflow that allows concurrent ways of working in a multidisciplinary team is ideal.

For example, the automotive engineer’s approach to process-driven implementation – with goals like scheduling, cost-efficiency and optimization – isn’t helpful when a team is trying to innovate. This study suggests this kind of mindset puts barriers in front of new ideas and can hinder out-of-the-box thinking.

6.   Help people interact using cross-functional tools

In a guest blog, Valentina Pozzebon, Creative Experiences Designer at GlobalLogic, talked about our Kanzi UI software:

It became natural to see designers and developers working together on the same computer in a sort of “paired programming” way – making adjustments to the product’s behavior and look/feel in just a few minutes.

As a leader, you’ll always be looking for ways to empower your teams. Managers in the automotive industry should research technologies that can help their employees become more collaborative, productive and creative. If people are using lots of different tools in their work, integration can be a pain, so it’s best to try to find a way of consolidating the team’s toolkit.

Check in with professionals across disciplines to find out where their pain-points lie before implementation, and offer support and training on new systems once you’ve decided to upgrade.

Quality is the outcome of a perfect collaboration of skills, tooling and process management. Don’t compromise on enabling your workforce to deliver a quality UX to customers. Apply one or even all six of our tips and see if they help you deliver game-changing results. Guaranteed: it’s worth the effort.

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