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The topic of interdisciplinary-led innovation was a key focus of the DARIAH Innovation Forum in Dublin in November. As a result, it was very fitting that the pan-European digital research network had the opportunity to host a talk by Jess Majekodunmi. Majekodunmi is a managing director at Accenture The Dock, Accenture’s flagship R&D and Global Innovation Center in Dublin. Accenture represented societal partners on the expert panel of the SHAPE-ID project. Many of their innovators have contributed to SHAPE-ID webinar discussions on societal collaboration in research partnerships. Majekodunmi herself is a leader in innovation who regularly brings her expertise to interdisciplinary conversations between industry and academia.
A design historian who highly values the role the human sciences and arts bring to technology, Majekodunmi’s leadership skills have recently been recognised internationally: she was awarded the Team Leader Award at the FDM Everywoman in Technology Awards in 2022. Not only is her work within interdisciplinary circles adding much-needed diversity to the world of technology, it is also driving innovation in industry.
Indeed, Majekodunmi recognises the strategic value that interdisciplinarity, and the necessary complications it entails, adds to industry. It may sound antithetical to welcome messiness into spaces traditionally associated with orderliness, such as a business. But, as Majekodunmi puts it, “I’m okay with contradictions”. Moreover, she argues, “innovation is messy”. Rather than shy away from contradictions and messiness, the importance of both is at the core of her innovation philosophy. Innovation itself is driven through the “fundamental tension of bringing together a collision of perspectives and a range of voices” that such messiness entails.
This is a belief she has brought to her own work leading the Human Sciences Studio at The Dock, where her team applies their expertise across the social sciences, arts and humanities to equip clients for shifting relationships between business, tech and society. This team highlights the diversity of viewpoints and experiences she finds so valuable. They have lived in 18 different countries and speak 14 different languages. They come from a wide range of disciplines. Indeed, “there’s very few places where such a variety of experts have the opportunity to work side by side.” The huge range of expertise from backgrounds from anthropology, through data ethics, to visual design and on to organisational psychology, demonstrate that her success in leadership is rooted in interdisciplinarity.
These leadership values are highlighted in her DARIAH presentation, which is based on her article of the same name published in September 2022 in Strategic HR Review. In it, she describes “three lessons learned from working with a team of people who think so differently to one another”. These are lessons gleaned from navigating both the challenges and opportunities that arise from an environment of interdisciplinarity: the places where a collision of perspectives creates innovation. These lessons are as follows:
1. The deluge of information is a messy delight
She describes navigating through a mass of often contradictory information as one of the “major challenges in working with a diverse team.” Majekodunmi collaborates with a range of people from across the human sciences and arts. These experts have strong, well-researched views that at times contradict each other. However, it is valuable – and often necessary – to take the initiative to sift through this wide range of views. This is because of the second lesson:
2. Sharing knowledge alerts us to our blind spots
Majekodunmi quotes Professor of Leadership and Ethics Management Katherine Phillips’ claim that “Diverse groups are less likely to assume that information and viewpoints are shared.” She stresses the importance of interdisciplinary work which approaches well-tread topics with new perspectives, and in the process creates an entirely new way of seeing the world. “When we make a space to collide perspectives,” she argues, “our blind spots are revealed to us.” This in turn leads to her third lesson:
3. Humility and vulnerability are vital
An innovator may be nervous or fearful of times when their blind spots are revealed – as indeed may anyone – but this too is necessary. Recognising your own assumptions and biases leads to humility and, as Majekodunmi has learned, “humility creates the space for others to shine.” This is the most difficult of the lessons to implement, because she argues, “the hardest part is not inviting in new perspectives; the hardest part is really listening.”
Majekodunmi’s own leadership style, then, demonstrates that interdisciplinarity is an active process, and one that requires conscious effort. When asked about best practices for building a successful team, she focuses on the time and the emotional labour required. Evidently, learning to collide without crashing is an ongoing project that requires continual engagement, reflection, and remaking. There are “elements where you might stretch yourself and learn a new routine and do that very deliberately.”
In the face of ever more complex global problems, Majekodunmi argues, we must learn how to collaborate across boundaries. And that collaboration means leaving your comfort zone and recognising and uplifting the ideas of others. After all, she concludes, “to innovate, we must disturb the peace.”
Photo courtesy Vicky Garnett 2022 CC-BY 4.0