The Importance of Cultivating Interdisciplinary Relationships

In college, and grad school, I mostly hung with a crowd in which everybody shared the same interests, hobbies and field of study. I know that a lot of college faculties are beginning to move towards a more interdisciplinary approach, because it more accurately reflects what students can expect their post-school life to be like. College professors tend to be somewhat protective of their disciplines, however, so progress is moving faster in some areas and at some schools than others. The result is that a lot of people in the workforce have a pretty narrow view of what the word “colleague” means. It’s important to broaden that definition and cultivate relationships with people in other fields. Here’s why.

Who Do You Consider a Colleague?

Especially for freelance web workers, defining a “colleague” can be a complicated matter. Is your stakeholder a colleague? How about the project sponsor for the contract you’re working on? More likely, you consider people doing similar work in similar fields to you colleagues, over and above people that you work with directly, who are responsible for entirely different aspects of a given project.

Expanding your definition of who you count as a colleague is not just a petty semantics game. It will help shape the way you interact with people, and could lead to more meaningful relationships where none would otherwise exist. Treating a PR contact as a colleague, instead of passively receiving information from them, for instance, could get you priority access to advance information down the road.

You might also consider people who perform the same function as you in different industries colleagues if you don’t already, and try to reach out and connect with them. A business writer has a lot to learn from a technical writer, for instance, and vice-versa. Having colleagues in other industry spaces also has the advantage of giving you lots of “bench depth” in terms of recommending other contractors to clients with needs beyond your skill set.

Have Conversations Beyond Your Purview

Being the expert on something feels good. So good, in fact, that many will opt to maintain that feeling as long as possible rather than risk wading into unfamiliar territory, and possibly looking like a bit of a fool. But by sticking to familiar ground you’re only doing yourself a disservice in the end.

Take every advantage you can at trade conventions and other events (including purely social occasions like birthday parties) to pick the brain of professionals in various fields other than your own. As freelancers, we often focus so much on personal branding that we miss out on chances to pick up a little more knowledge of things beyond our walled garden.

Try Out Unusual Partnerships

If you happen to be successful at learning about things beyond your usual sphere, you may start to get ideas for strange and unusual projects that bridge disciplines or industries.

Resist the urge to dismiss these fantasies as unrealistic or unfeasible. In fact, try some of the more unrealistic ones out. It’s hard to embark on a project that doesn’t have a clearly defined value proposition, especially if you’re at a point at which you basically need to convert all of your working time into money. But as the old saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Accepting a little risk in exchange for the possibility of finding a partnership that could lead to new and exciting work is sometimes the only way to escape a work funk or a revenue plateau.

Pop the Bubble

At this point, with the technology available to us, there’s no excuse for having tunnel vision as a freelancer. Get out there, meet new people, and reevaluate your professional assumptions on a regular basis, and your business will reflect the positive change.

What steps have you taken to cultivate interdisciplinary relationships?