Educating game changers

Professor of Practice Niina Nurmi knows how new things get created. What you need is a team consisting of experts from different fields that feels secure.
Photo: Jaakko Kahilaniemi.

“Multidisciplinary teams run a great risk of failure,” says Professor of Practice Niina Nurmi.

It is possible for people representing different fields to not find a shared language, and the time set aside for the project may be insufficient to discover common ground. Dumb questions might be mocked or perhaps the team members are afraid to even open their mouths. Nothing new is created.

“But when a multidisciplinary team is successful, the potential for breakthrough innovation is huge,” Nurmi points out. This is why it is worthwhile to bring together people with different backgrounds, in spite of the risk.

IDBM combines the many fields of Aalto

Niina Nurmi, who received her PhD in organisational psychology, shares some pointers on how to get a team consisting of experts in different fields up and running.  

“I've always been interested in identifying when people are at their best.”

Nurmi heads Aalto University's Master's degree programme in International Design Business Management, which brings together expertise in technology, business and design. Nurmi has worked at Aalto for more than a decade as an organisation researcher.

“I've always participated in multidisciplinary teams, whose cooperation partners have included physicians, for example,” she says. She also spent several years at Stanford University as a postdoctoral researcher.

Multidisciplinarity is quite a catchword these days in many different contexts, but Nurmi considers the terminology somewhat challenging. Say notes that, in English, the words multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary can both be used to describe the same thing. In other words, multidisciplinarity means that experts from different fields may work either side-by-side, but also sequentially.

Team-building begins on day one of IDBM studies. Last autumn's group started their academic year by setting up a pop-up restaurant at Helsinki's Teurastamo venue as part of their creative teamwork course. The group designed, cooked and served a three-course dinner. At the same time, the creation of a community and cultural differences were examined.

Key principles must be known

IDBM studies are steered by the so-called T model. The discipline-specific expertise acquired from the student's Bachelor-stage studies is harnessed for multidisciplinary activities during the Master's phase.

About half of the students selected for the programme hail from abroad. Selection is based on motivation and academic aptitude.

“Participants must be familiar with the key principles associated with their own discipline in order to create good conditions for multidisciplinary activities,” Nurmi says.

“The programme's team of instructors is also interdisciplinary, so we ourselves get to grapple with the same issues as well,” she says with a laugh.

Common ground

A good atmosphere is of primary importance for the success of a multidisciplinary team.

“Team members must feel secure enough to ask dumb questions. Furthermore, experts of various fields must be prepared to answer basic questions related to their own discipline. Appreciatively and respectfully,” Nurmi emphasises.

In addition to fostering a good atmosphere, it is necessary to set aside time for discovering common ground.

“The risks of failure are managed by focusing on the establishment of a common language and shared understanding.”

Nurmi says a group should look for analogies in matters that are familiar to everyone, such as nature or history. And failure must be permitted.

As a good example, Nurmi mentions tech giant Google, which arranges “angst parties” for its teams where everyone is allowed to talk about their concerns regarding an upcoming project. After this, the causes of concern are scored and then discussed.

Nurmi says open interaction is the key factor.  

“Negative aspects are powerful until they are put into words and a solution is found for them.”

Focus on the question “why?”

Corporate design challenges provide rhythm for the two-year IDBM programme. Students can, for example, be asked to design a fresh concept for a service. First, they'll produce a prototype of it and then think up a business model and strategy.

“Rich dialogue is fruitful from the perspective of learning. You'll suddenly realise that, hey, it can be seen like this, too!”

Design thinking is open-minded per se. A customer-oriented approach and the question “why?” form the hub for all activities.

“A company may, for example, ponder how it could benefit from, say, artificial intelligence. At this point our students will usually ask why. Why would the client need artificial intelligence for some product in the first place?,” Nurmi says.

Design thinking in need of change

The design thinking that is an integral part of the IDBM programme's culture is strengthening in the corporate sector as well. Earlier, design was considered only in association with the designing of products or services. Now, it is being introduced to, for example, strategy work and organisational planning.  

“Teams are already being designed, with thought being given to whom to bring together,” Niina Nurmi says.

Graduates of the IDBM programme are, according to Nurmi, change-makers in their own organisations. Change is required to introduce design thinking into processes, and this is exactly what the IDBM programme educates students to do.

“The IDBM identity carries well into working life. Our graduates are successful on the job market and find work in design-intensive product and service development tasks or become consultants and entrepreneurs, for example.”

Key premises learned at a top university:

1. Ask! Support from the community is a special feature of Stanford. There, you can and must ask about everything. In Finland, we do things more independently.

2. Discuss! Stanford has a rich culture of debate. People have the courage to bring different ideas to the table. This is also expected – as is hard work from you.

3. Produce first versions quickly! Don't dilly-dally with your prototype or draft.

This article is originally published in Finnish in the Aalto University Magazine issue 19, April 2017.

Photo: Jaakko Kahilaniemi.

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