A recent white paper “What Moves You” by the Business Agility Institute revealed that as business agility continues to flourish, so will the focus on employee engagement. Organizations are now looking past team lunches and formal recognition programs to meaningful, forward-looking incentives. While many companies are revamping their formal programs, leaders have an opportunity to make a big, local impact on engagement.
One of the most intriguing and effective activities you can do with your teams to support their growth is to explore adjacent disciplines. From the nostalgic Karate Kid movie to inspiring Microsoft thought leaders, people who have studied adjacent disciplines have improved many professional and athletic careers.
Adjacent disciplines are those which are next to your expertise. Different from the forced “rounding out” you may have experienced in a formal education program, studying adjacent disciplines grows skills and knowledge in areas that surround your expertise.
Studying adjacent disciplines grows skills and knowledge in areas that surround your expertise.
For example, a senior technical product manager might benefit from developing training and leadership skills; sharper training skills to accelerate cross-functional knowledge exchange, and sharper leadership skills to better coach and mentor teams to solve problems.
When a team practices adjacent disciplines, they help grow team knowledge, skills and ultimately, engagement. Over time, when your team has increased shared knowledge and engagement, your team flow will improve. How your teams solve problems, innovate, and collaborate are some indicators of team flow. The bottom line: your team is only as strong as its weakest link. By practicing adjacent disciplines, individual team members can shore up their weak areas while sharing some of their own strengths with others.
There is a meaningful place of influence for the agile leader to encourage adjacent disciplines. Though you may not have the money to invest in a formal learning program, you do have time and creativity on your side to help your team grow. You may be thinking, “We don’t have time for this!” It really feels like that, and the pressures abound from all sides. No doubt, teams and leaders are very busy, but when it comes to improving team flow, there is no free speed. Commit to team growth, and you will find the time.
The bottom line: your team is only as strong as its weakest link.
I offer a playful, low-cost exercise you can use to introduce the topic of practicing adjacent disciplines, ahead of any individual career development conversations. You don’t need to wait for the launch of a large employee engagement initiative, and you don’t need a huge investment of money. It simply begins with a team conversation, and some Legos.
The exercise works well for teams of 5-7 people. If you have a larger group, you’ll need to organize into smaller teams, and you’ll need more Legos than in the supplies list below. With distributed teams, you’ll need video to have the best outcomes.
Lego Adjacent Disciplines Exercise for 5-7 team members
- 1 Lego Classic Large Creative Brick Box
- 2 sets of Lego-compatible people and vehicles, also known as “minifigures” or “community people” (You could get fancy and use elaborate Lego sets like Star Wars, for example, but regular Legos work just fine.)
- 4 sticky notes or notecards that can be folded
Preparation for One Team
- On separate sticky notes or notecards, one per note or card, write the following careers:
- Organic Farmer
- Construction worker
- Rebel Alliance Star Fighter Corps member
- Make two sets of these four careers, so you have 8 careers for up to 8 people.
- Organize the Legos on a large table, or several tables pushed together.
- Kickoff the event with an explanation of adjacent disciplines.
- Share the value of what you see for individuals, the team, the organization.
- Provide an example that is not one of those within the exercise. Use your own, or this one: American short track speed skating Olympic champion Apolo Anton Ohno went on to become a motivational speaker, philanthropist, and entrepreneur in the nutritional supplement business.
- Invite each team member to draw a career from the collection.
- Invite each team member to look at their card. Some people may ask you, “What’s an angler?” Assure them they will have time to research the career they selected.
- Tell the team they will have 20 minutes to construct adjacent disciplines for the career on their card. Use the Legos, or anything else available to you. You can talk with your team, but everyone does their own work.
Debrief the exercise. It should take about 15 minutes, depending on the number of participants. If just 5-7 people, allow 2 minutes per person to share what career they selected and its adjacent disciplines. If two or more teams, consider a smaller sample to share back:
- Why these as adjacent disciplines?
- What is the value of these disciplines?
- Optional Integration: If time allows, give teams 10 minutes to integrate the careers they designed at the table. Use Legos and imagination to creatively weave together the careers. If there are several tables, each table does their own integration.
- Debrief. It should take about 10 minutes, depending on the number of participants. Share what was designed and why.
- How do these seemingly different skills fit together?
- What is the collective value of integrating them?
Give this exercise a try with your team. The experience may open the door to a longer, more meaningful focus on growing your team.