What makes a multidisciplinary team work well?

The benefit of having a multidisciplinary team filled with a diverse range of skills and expertise seems obvious – just look at the Fantastic Four. And yet past research on this issue has been inconsistent, with some studies even suggesting that a team’s diversity can have a negative effect. One apparent drawback is that team members with shared backgrounds tend to organise themselves into opposing cliques.

Now Doris Fay and colleagues have proposed that the benefit of being multidisciplinary is dependent on whether certain group processes are working well.

The researchers looked at the quantity and quality of innovations introduced by 70 Breast Care Teams and 95 Primary Health Care Teams working in the UK. The number of professions represented in each team varied from 4 to 12 (including nurses, surgeons and psychologists), and this was taken as the measure of how multidisciplinary a team was.

Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, teams that were more multidisciplinary tended to have introduced more innovations over the previous year, regardless of whether effective group processes were in place. Crucially, however, the quality of the innovations (e.g. as measured by their benefit to patients) was dependent on group processes. Teams with more professions on board only introduced innovations of greater quality when effective group processes were in place – including all team members being committed to the same cause; everyone in the team being listened to; the team reflecting on its own effectiveness; and there being plenty of contact between team members.

“From a practical perspective, the most eminent question is how to establish team processes that help capitalize on multidisciplinarity”, the researchers concluded.

A shortcoming of the study, acknowledged by the researchers, is its cross-sectional methodology – it’s possible that generating better quality innovations has a beneficial effect on a team’s group processes, for example by engendering greater team cohesion.

Fay, D., Borrill, C., Amir, Z., Haward, R. & West, M.A. (2006). Getting the most out of multidisciplinary teams: A multi-sample study of team innovation in health care. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 79, 553–567.

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