Breaking down the silo mentality ensures that projects embody and represent the full expertise of all those engaged in its design and delivery.

The Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE) Masters Programme at the University of Cambridge (I am the Course Director) refers to this as integrated collaborative working, or interdisciplinary design.

The barriers to this style of approach are almost too well known to reiterate, but they can include late appointment of those with relevant experience and expertise, lack of a shared vision across the design team, inadequate procedures for collaboration and co-ordination, and lack of clarity over design objectives and responsibilities. Sometimes these arise from commercial and time pressures, but equally they can result from simple lack of awareness of the principles and the benefits of effective teamwork.

In my view, there are seven broad principles to collaborative working:

  1. careful selection of the participants
  2. inspired leadership
  3. developing team identity
  4. shared vision
  5. open communication
  6. fair means to resolve divergent opinions
  7. a reflective attitude towards the process not just the product.

Selection of team members is critical. Typically those who are prepared to explain their assumptions, negotiate options and be flexible enough to accept suggestions from others, work better in teams than those who prefer to operate individually. Similarly, those who put the interests of the team before their own, and accept that the outcome is the result of a joint effort rather than the achievement of an individual, function better in teams.

Good leadership involves ensuring the team has the necessary resources, helping the team to identify shared objectives, keeping participants focused, and creating opportunities for all members to contribute visibly to the team as a whole. Leaders also need to be aware of participants’ organisational loyalties, to act fairly and impartially, to avoid blaming individuals, and to be willing to share credit across the team.

A key way to help individuals to work together is to encourage them to think of themselves as a unit with a clear identity, that accepts ownership of the task and whose members are committed to delivering the solution. Ideally, participants place the good of the team before their own interests or ambitions, or those of their own organisation or discipline, while still recognising their continuing affiliations both within and outside the team. They develop loyalty to the group and support each other.

Well organised teams develop a shared vision and take joint responsibility for its delivery. A vision developed through negotiation by the team members themselves will help to generate a sense of common ownership and, at best, help to inspire and motivate team members in its delivery.

Effective communication and active information-sharing are essential if team members are to make best use of their pooled knowledge. Open communication helps members to anticipate what they can expect from one another and when, eliminates unwelcome surprises, and promotes trust and familiarity. It provides an environment where team members feel they can question and challenge other team members without undermining them.

Team members bring differing expertise, experience, values and priorities, and identifying and resolving diverging views is a necessary part of the team process. At best, divergence is treated not as a source of unwelcome conflict but as an opportunity for creative problem solving. Much apparent conflict arises from poor collaboration or differing assumptions, and can almost always be resolved by clear communication and open negotiation.

Finally, teams often focus exclusively on the task at hand, and only rarely on the ‘process’ of teamwork. Yet there are benefits to be gained from reviewing periodically how the team is working, whether it has a shared vision, whether communication is open, whether team members believe they have the opportunity to participate fully, and whether the team’s collective energy is being fully harnessed.

The IDBE is aimed both at engineers, architects and other professions responsible for the design and production of the built environment. An underlying principle of the course, indeed the reason it was established by The Ove Arup Foundation 20 years ago, is that meeting society’s challenges demands effective interdisciplinary understanding and collaborative working. Among other things, the course aims to help the members of multi-disciplinary teams to work together effectively, harnessing their knowledge and expertise in the design and delivery of an integrated product.