Alignment Across Silos
How can we get teams working well across silo boundaries?
Our first guest, Dr. Deana Pennington, is a Research Associate Professor at the University of New Mexico. She studies the difficulties that scientists have in working collaboratively with each other when they come from different disciplines or different areas of study – for example, geologists working with chemists working with climatologists working with computer scientists. The speak different technical languages, they have different starting points and often different starting assumptions. What she has learned, has implications and lessons for anybody trying to get people and teams to work across normal lines.
Deana tarted off in the oil business working on cross functional teams, then went into high tech and programming. She discovered she was good at bridging between groups, such as between clients and developers.
She went on and got her PhD in remote sensing – combined geology and computer science. She then got interested in “informatics” which is all about working in teams that are put together across departmental lines.
In these groups, Deana noticed, everyone had energy and enthusiasm and intelligence. All were highly motivated. And yet they were not able to work well together, in part because they had too vague a goal. To create a more targeted goal, you have to get the group to create it – it will not be handed down from on high.
So you explore the problem space – which itself is hard because folks speak different technical languages. Even when you bridge the language gap you still have different starting perspectives. Think about the last time you were on the phone with someone to solve a problem with a computer, for example.
What are the models of teamwork that will help? She looked to the business world for ideas.
There has been a lot of work done on participation and encouragement and the social environment. People have to feel comfortable sharing.
There are also big cognitive challenges. Once everyone is comfortable throwing ideas on the table, they have to be able to understand the ideas. So you must slow down and allow folks to learn from each other.
And when there are experts around the table, they hate to admit they don’t know or don’t understand something. Those folks don’t ask for clarification, and that part of the conversation gets lost.
Creativity generally flows from juxtaposing very different ideas, including ideas you don’t initially agree with or even understand.
This will help you start to think about your own work in new and more creative ways.
It’s often said that creative thinking occurs in two phases – the grasping phase and the transforming phase. The grasping phase is the harder one, especially when the new idea is abstract. People are generally good at transforming.
Deana’s work is done on research teams so they like to learn, which helps. And she discovers that as soon as you start to make it okay to say “I don’t understand” they really start to learn, and they start to think about their own work in new ways.
She teaches a workshop for these sorts of teams. Lots of time gets spent helping everyone understand each others’ perspectives. Everyone becomes expected to put their ideas out, which requires they feel safe. And as each idea comes out, they spend time on grasping.
To help people do the grasping, there is a huge benefit in creating physical artifacts. This can be as simple as a “concept map” – just a physical arrangement of key words that are related to a concept. The big benefit comes from creating the diagram collectively. The use of diagramming generally is highly effective.
Another set of tools are around “issue mapping” to organize your thinking around different issues. This visualization helps you lay out your thoughts and share them.
This means we are not just making presentations. We make interactive connections between the person putting out the idea, and the previously shared ideas. And we capture the ideas and their linkages in a permanent way.
This is when the miracle occurs. What you want to create is a “cognitive system” that itself depends on linkages. Once enough linkages are created, we cross a threshold and begin to generate synergistic results.
So, when working to create teams, work on the social aspects of safety and mutual respect, and also work on creating a shared vision, and finally work on sharing — and really understanding — perspectives and concepts and world views.
Our second guest was Tim Wilson. Tim is a business management and organizational development consultant with more than 30 years of progressive business and managerial experience in senior-level positions. He spent 25 years with Digital Equipment Corporation. Tim’s most valuable strengths are in team building, training, change management, developing organizations, and understanding businesses’ need to persistently focus on their bottom line. He is an expert in the areas of accountability, revenue generation and diversity management and inclusion.
He possesses a Master of Science degree in applied management and a Bachelor of Science in business administration and information systems.
There is a universal experience in large firms that people in different groups have friction and misunderstandings with others across departmental lines. Marketing-versus-sales, engineering-versus-manufacturing, and IT-versus-everybody.
Most folks think silos are normal or unavoidable, that they require a lot of complex Organizational Development and change work to overcome, and that they are unique to larger business. Tim believes that none of that is necessarily the case.
When an ambitious person starts to manage a group they may want to “make their mark” in part by controlling or changing the way people work together. This can create silos.
And when a silo is broken down, it may not be a permanent fix – they can pop back up.
Mergers and Acquisitions will often create or uncover problems.
When DEC was purchased by Compaq, they found for example that DEC had more developed HR processes than Compaq for things like sexual harassment and community involvement. And because Compaq was the purchaser, a mindset came in that the DEC elements were “lower ranked” and less important or less valuable than the elements from Compaq.
Some of that might be hubris or power or an attempt to show status. And in other cases it can be other problems or causes. To take another example, DEC and Compaq had competing products – how do they merge these product lines and satisfy customers? They also had competing internal tools – SAP and PeopleSoft – and needed to pick one to standardize on, and port folks over.
There are some test or warning signs that silos are proliferating. Are organizations hording information? Are managers getting unduly involved in controlling information flows? Can you see infighting taking place? This can show up in customer satisfaction surveys because customers start to get conflicting messages from different departments.
Tim has found that a great fix is, having clear ideas and clear goals. Drucker said “businesses exist to create customers.” When everybody looks at their role in this context, it helps them cooperate.
Then around goals and objectives you need accountability. That’s a huge gap for a lot of businesses. That’s not about punishment – it is around noticing performance shortfalls and addressing them in a problem-solving way.
And, how do you handle conflict? Managers have to be ready to face conflict and face confrontation, and manage it to an effective resolution.
The lines of communication have to be open. Often managers are not open to hearing information. They simply have to get over it.