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Darwin's Medicine blog

Professor Brian D Smith is an authority on the pharmaceutical industry and works at SDA Bocconi University and Hertfordshire Business School.

Cross functions

The biggest problem in your company is also your biggest opportunity

The tension was palpable, even through a screen, as I looked at the cross-functional team.

The topic wasn’t that problematic and they were the right people to address it. But 90% of their mental energy wasn’t going into the issue, it was being absorbed by the tension between these individuals.

As the outsider, I could see everyone choosing their words, avoiding contentious issues and generally dancing around each other. The problem was, in a nutshell, cross-functional working.

They needed to align but, like many teams, found coordination consumed much more of their effort than it should. An evolutionary metaphor came to my mind. Bear with me and I’ll tell you how it can help your cross-functional issues too.

Complex organisms

We’re taught in school biology that the most interesting creatures are complex organisms. We take for granted that higher animals, for example, differ from lower life forms in that they contain specialised organs and systems.

Much of medicine is based on the so-obvious-we- forget fact that your liver, lungs, brain and bowel are different from each other because they do different jobs. All wrapped up in the same body and around each other, but all tasked with doing separate, complementary jobs.

And then we’re taught that all this works because we have other systems – the nervous system, the endocrine system and others – that coordinate the different organs.

We rarely question that, in the case of higher animals at least, evolution found that the best way to make an organism work is to have specialised and coordinated parts.

Unless I missed a biology lecture somewhere, there is no non-microbial creature made up of undifferentiated parts that are all capable of doing everything necessary to stay alive. Even within microbes, there is a form of specialisation of parts. So that’s the biology 101 out of the way and you can probably see where I’m heading.

Complex organisations

In the smallest, one-person firm, that person necessarily multitasks. But even then, they’ll often depend on external specialists like lawyers or accountants. As firms grow, they specialise.

Firstly they separate knowledge-intense from the essential but unskilled work. Even in a tiny biotech, the PhDs don’t clean the toilets. Further specialisation is between knowledge-intensive tasks.

I once worked in a firm that was making the transition from all its scientists working under one boss to having an ‘R&D function’ and a ‘QC function’. Both groups had similar knowledge but had very different tasks and were more productive if they focused on just one task.

Then specialisation happens within functions. As a research chemist, my good friend worked in the same department and had the same qualifications. But she specialised in analysis, was a virtuoso of her instruments and didn’t understand my passion for synthesis pathways.

By this gradual process, the people in our organisations become less generalist and more specialist. And it happens not because some textbook prescribes it but because it works. As long ago as 1776, Adam Smith realised

that pin makers made more pins when they each made a part of a pin. This is even more true in science-based companies like yours. Look around your company and you will see people whose job you barely understand.

Efficacy benefits, efficiency costs

Specialisation works but at the price of making us different from each other. Your lawyer colleague is good at his job because he never misses a detail.

Your medical colleague has been trained to focus on the needs of the patient. Your chief strategy officer is brilliant at seeing the big picture. It’s not just that your colleagues have different educations.

They have different ways of looking at the world, developed by years of working in their professional micro- environment. This brings the benefits of efficacy but carries the costs of inefficiency.

As Adam Smith also noted, the firm only works if these specialists are well-coordinated and the more we look at the world from different perspectives, the more difficult coordination becomes. Hence the tension in my meeting and the mental effort it drained from the team.

T-shaped treasures

The tense meeting had a happy ending and I like to think I played a part in that. I’ve worked in the industry a long time and studied it intensely.

So, while I am a strategy specialist, I know how each function sees the world. I try to maintain a T-shaped skill profile – narrow and deep in one area but broad and shallow in others. T-shaped people are what make complex organisations work.

They can have multiple world views and bridge intra-organisational divides. The best senior executives are T-shaped and the worst are I shaped hyper-specialists with narrow minds.

In practical terms, this means that the inevitability of specialisation in complex organisations, despite the tensions it creates, is your best opportunity. Don’t seek to be a specialist or a generalist. Learn to be a T-shaped organisational treasure.

This column is also available as a podcast on spotify, or search your podcast provider for ‘Darwin’s Medicine’.

Professor Brian D Smith works at SDA Bocconi and the University of Hertfordshire. He is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences industry and welcomes questions at

1st June 2021

From: Research, Marketing


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