The “bridge” personality: a key to success for multidisciplinary projects

According to Bruce L. Tow and David A. Gilliam

In the 1970s, SRI International (then called Stanford Research) asked some of its brightest researchers to explore a question vital to their success as a think tank and provider of innovative solutions: Why did some of their multidisciplinary projects succeed while others failed? This was a key question because, up until then, nobody at SRI could find a pattern. After careful study, researchers led by Joseph McPherson […] came up with a theory, which SRI subsequently put into successful practice: They identified a type of individual whom they called a Bridge. The Bridge (as it happened, quite accidentally) combined the focused knowledge of a specialist with an intense, innate curiosity about the other disciplines in any multidisciplinary project in which that person was involved.

Typically, a Bridge was a specialist assigned to a given multidisciplinary project, who at some point–without project-management knowledge or approval–would ask both basic and project-focused questions of project members in other specialties. In many cases, Bridges were a source of annoyance and distraction both to their management and their other-specialty peers. The SRI researchers discovered a powerful and unexpected correlation between the project’s success and the presence of a Bridge.

The researchers conjectured that the Bridge was, in effect, cross-fertilizing or “coupling” the various disciplines involved in the project, usually without the Bridge, the project management, or the other specialists involved realizing that anything unusual was going on. Interestingly, the researchers also found that the majority of project breakthroughs were coming not from the Bridge, as one might expect, but rather from those team members being “annoyed”! As a result, SRI began to keep an eye out for and nurture Bridges for their multidisciplinary projects.

What was going on in the mind of the Bridge? Why was this person, otherwise a respected and valued specialist in his or her field, so driven as to defy management pressure–Why aren’t you getting your own work done?–and peer disapproval–Why does this person keep asking me stupid questions? He’s no [name your own specialty]!

Our theory is that people get different levels of reward from different types of learning. Most people, we believe, get the biggest brain-reward from learning something that increases their mastery of, or deepens their understanding of, a specific specialty area (we call these people Type M for “mastery”). However, a small subset of people get a much bigger brain-reward from learning something completely new (we call these people Type N for “new”). As to the proportion of people who are Type M versus N, it’s difficult to measure, but perhaps as many as 95% are Type M.

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