Magic at the intersections

How to work across disciplines to bring a vision to life.

People at Postlight often find themselves at the intersection of disciplines, learning the inner workings of the problem or opportunity that we’ll be tackling with a partner organization. Interdisciplinary collaboration may start with customer interviews or conversations with specialists in the partner organization. Often, it involves learning from people who have different specialized knowledge from our own.

In a role like this, it is essential to learn how to quickly develop a working understanding of new subject matter expertise. Moreover, we also need to make it easy for others to quickly develop a working understanding of Postlight’s expertise and the specialized knowledge we each carry as individuals.

“The ability to deliver the right message with the right level of detail to the right audience” is a seemingly simple line in Postlight’s Product Management Growth Framework. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but when you can navigate the intersections of disciplines, it’s possible to make new products and experiences that seem like magic. Here are three practices I’ve learned that have helped me do my best work at the intersection of disciplines.

Ask simple questions

What do my collaborators already know about my areas of expertise? What do I know about theirs? What do we all not yet know?

When I first started working with a Postlight partner organization called Probable Futures, I did not know anything about how climate models work or how they can be applied as a planning tool. Our collaborators at Probable Futures knew lots about both, but knew little about how software products are designed, built, tested, and honed over time. I made too many assumptions at first, but once I began to ask questions about what my collaborators knew about making software and other questions to grasp the fundamentals of their expertise, we were able to set the contextual foundation for the products we set out to build together.

Keep a list of topics to learn or explain in more depth, and jot down any unfamiliar terms that come up in your conversations or independent research so that you can keep track of your learning.

Seek the quiet experts

Sometimes the loudest experts in the room are not always the most well-equipped to teach. Look for the quiet experts — someone who understands the subject matter impeccably and is willing to take the time to explain it, but might not be the first person to raise their hand in a meeting.

For example, when I worked with a large insurance client, I didn’t understand how underwriting and insurance products work, but gaining a working understanding was essential to building the right insurance software product. Many of the most vocal people at the organization assumed I had knowledge about both. One member of the underwriting team was quieter, but when I approached him and asked if I could ask him some basic questions, he was happy to help get me up to speed on the fundamentals of his industry.

Hold mini seminars

Once you and your collaborators understand what you each have to learn about the others’ area of expertise, consider teaching each other the fundamentals through mini seminars. Mini seminars should be simple. Preparing a mini seminar on a topic should require little to no research for an expert. The material should be easy for anyone to digest. Visual aids can be a great help.

Our collaborators at Probable Futures organized mini climate science seminars with Woodwell Climate Research Center for those of us non-climate-scientists. We learned so much and walked away with enough understanding of the fundamentals of climate models to collaborate much more productively. Postlight’s co-founder Paul Ford then held a seminar on how APIs work, teaching our collaborators at Probable Futures about the medium of the web and its opportunities and limitations. The seminars set us all up with the working knowledge and vocabulary we needed to collaborate across disciplines which in turn enabled us to make useful climate maps and an impactful platform.

It’s easy to fall back into the comfort of your own expertise, and collaboration across disciplines requires ongoing practice. Keep the practice going by asking simple questions of your collaborators, seeking the quiet experts, and holding mini seminars. It takes some time, but it’s worth it. Working across disciplines is not only fun and filled with learning opportunities but also results in some of the most novel and useful products. If done really well, the outcome can feel like magic.

Peter Croce (he/him) is was a Lead Product Manager at Postlight. Interested in working at the intersections? Get in touch.