Want to solve a complex problem? Build a multi-disciplinary team

Companies using digital transformation to solve a complex operational problem should consider building a multi-disciplinary team if they want their solution to work, the leader of a Halifax-based enterprise software development firm said during ITBusiness.ca parent ITWC’s 2018 Digital Transformation Awards and Conference on Tuesday.

QRA Corp. co-founder and CEO Jordan Kyriakidis spoke from experience: on its website, the company emphasizes its employees’ backgrounds in diverse subjects such as applied mathematics, physics, enterprise software, and complex systems engineering.

“If everybody comes from the same background, they all think the same way, and they all solve problems the same way, so the end result is like a team of construction workers that starts hammering a mallet at the problem because it’s all they know to do, or carpenters shaving the edges off to make it fit.” Kyriakidis told ITBusiness.ca. “I think it’s important to have a multi-disciplinary approach because you won’t solve a problem otherwise.”

The two-pronged reason for taking a multi-disciplinary approach

Kyriakidis’s presentation was founded on two key ideas.

The first was that the history of technology reshaping society – the first, steam-driven industrial revolution of the 1700s, the second electricity-driven revolution of the 1800s, and the third computing-driven revolution of the 1990s – boiled down to innovators building never-before-seen solutions to societal problems.

“Transformation is born out of challenges,” he said. “You have a problem that you can’t solve, so you need to do things differently, because the nature of the challenge is different or the kind of problem you have is too complicated to solve.”

The second foundation of Kyriakidis’s message was his observation that if you task half a dozen innovative individuals with solving a problem, they’ll develop half a dozen unique solutions.

And if enterprises want to adapt to what he and others call “the fourth industrial revolution” – that is, today’s burgeoning digital age – they need to embrace the multiple perspectives behind those distinctive solutions.

Drawing on what he called his “physics geek roots,” Kyriakidis used science to explain his point: When particles collide, they break apart, but on a macro level combine with other particles to form new matter.

“When you have transformation what you have is collision,” he said. “I see it happen over and over again in companies, and especially truly innovative companies. When they shake things up, they don’t fire people and bring in new blood… they take a big pot and mix everything together to see what happens, and then give them a mission to solve a particular problem.”

In fact, equally important to building a multi-disciplinary team is defining the challenge that team is trying to solve and giving them a specific goal, Kyriakidis said.

“You need to seed a team with diverse talent from different backgrounds,” he told ITBusiness.ca, “but if you don’t give them a clear mission, with clearly defined challenges and an end goal, they’re not any more likely to solve the problem.”

IT: A poster child for the multi-disciplinary approach

Fortunately, Kyriakidis said that from what he observes the IT sector is currently following this approach. But he cautioned practitioners not to rest on their laurels, since like any other sector IT itself is gradually transforming, driven by two contradictory impulses: The general public’s distaste for technology, and their expectation that it will solve their problems.

This, he said, is why the most effective solutions are often all-encompassing, accommodating Luddite innovators who distrust technology and want to learn about as few platforms as possible, while also being infinitely customizable (think Facebook for social media, G-Suite or Microsoft Office for productivity, or Salesforce for, well, sales).

“[People] want just one single solution – one deployment they don’t have to worry about that does one thing and does it well,” he said. “But they also want it to do 25 other completely different and customizable things as well.”

Kyriakidis presented three examples of technology-based companies that he feels embody this bifurcated approach to problem-solving, including his own, which offers clients (most of whom are in the aerospace, automotive, or biotech industries) rigorous early-stage analysis of projects and products; Resson, which digitally transforms crop farming with data (and employs farmers itself to ensure its solutions are effective); and Kinduct Technologies, which uses data collection and analysis to help coaches optimize athletic performance.

Speaking again from experience, Kyriakidis said his own company’s services essentially save clients money at the planning stage by ensuring designs are error-free before they’re built – which happens less often than you’d think.

“It’s typical, if you look at all projects that try to develop something brand new, for companies to spend 40 per cent on top of their budget,” Kyriakidis said. By following his own advice, through methods such as blueprint and design analysis, QRA has been able to save its clients a significant (but unrevealed) percentage of their development budgets.

That success, he said, can be directly attributed to QRA’s team including mathematicians and physicists in addition to IT workers and software developers.

With files from Meagan Simpson.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of ITBusiness.ca turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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