If you asked a team of 2nd graders to build a fort, how would they organize? A bit of chaos and whining, sure. But they’d probably just get together in the same place, gather their materials, and start working together – communicating as they go. They wouldn’t create process maps and prioritization forums. And they definitely wouldn’t go off to separate corners of the house and dial into a conference call to talk about when they’ll build the fort. You may think this is a silly example, but if you take inventory, it’s probably closer to how we should work then the complex web that is our workplace system today.
When it comes to transforming your organization’s culture, one of the best things you can do is tear down silos. Organizational silos are the grouping of people according to their role type, for example, a technology group or a brand department. These groupings drastically impede the flow of work in an organization because, by nature, they are not self-sufficient. In this post, we’ll provide a simple solution to your silo woes – but first, let’s understand what’s happening here.
Most organizations are still arranged in silos, slowing work down and frustrating employees. However, if you think about it, no one intended to do this. Let’s say Greg started a company today. He is focused on business strategy, Shauna on accounting, Tim on software development, and Erika on brand marketing. It’s beautiful. The four sit together every day, talk and share information, bounce ideas off each other, give constant feedback about the work & interactions, and everyone knows what’s going on. You might call this a cross-functional team.
The business takes off and triples its customers month over month for the first year. At the end of each month, everyone is complaining that they have way too much on their plate. So what happens? Well, Greg hires a few people to help with business strategy and analytics, and they all report to Greg. When their plates are overflowing, they each hire a couple people themselves. Same story for Shauna, Tim, & Erika. This trend continues for a few years until the company is made up of four silos – business strategy, finance, technology, and marketing.
Yet of course, these teams still need each other. So they email each other constantly. Each email produces 4 or 5 responses, which exponentially increases the amount of invisible mail flying around the office. Although no one’s resume says it, everyone is a professional email sender at this point – reading and responding for five to six hours a day.
The tech department is being asked to code 5 different projects a week, so they create an intake form. Every team must fill out this form, submit it to the tech inbox, and then wait for prioritization. Business strategy has so many ideas and the market seems to be beating them to the punch, so they create a forum to share their ideas with the technology group and get estimates of how long the different ideas will take to build. The tech group is now spending half of their days responding to emails in preparation for the business forum, reviewing intake forms, and preparing presentations for the teams that have no idea what they’re doing. Oh, and of course, they’re sick of being badgered “How long until that’s done?”, so they always build in a few extra days of fluff into their estimates.
Meanwhile, the marketing department has their own great ideas. But everyone is beginning to realize that some of the tech builds and marketing campaigns are dependent on each other. Enter another forum. Get everyone together to discuss the initiatives, debate the sequencing and timing of builds, and leave the meeting still having no clue what’s going on.
And let’s not forget the customer service group. They spend their days hearing pain points and opportunities to improve the products & services. But, of course, the other groups would never dare ask for advice or ideas from a group much less educated.
You get the point. We could probably fill tens of pages with this story, but chances are, you already know it well. So. If we all despise this phenomenon and just want to get some work done, why do we still have silos??
Because organizations rarely invest in designing the culture as the company grows.
One day, you look out across the office floor, and see a mass of highly talented people with good intentions, all frustrated by the bureaucracy & red tape. So they go to smaller businesses where they can do real work (vs paper-pushing), or start their own business. And you spend all your energy and time on recruiting (when you never needed to in the first place).
For those of us stuck in the silo jungle, what’s the path out? Is there a way to make a large company operate small? The answer is yes. And we have a systematic approach that will make it easier for people to get work done, while also accelerating your culture transformation journey from 0 to 50.
Getting Your Teams Together
Co-location is simple and has three major benefits:
- It’s cheap
- People will be energized because they can get things done faster & with less headache
- It’s a change that engages many of the senses, which naturally causes people to start thinking and engaging differently.
It’s the perfect first step in a cultural transformation, but only works if you set some things aside and focus on the effort start to finish. Here’s what you need to do:
- Find a fun and creative way to collect the names of every person in the organization & every initiative/project/product/service that each is working on – involving everyone in the process early will help with rollout later on
- Find a room with blank walls that you and your core transformation team can call home base for a few weeks
- Write down all the names on one color of post-its, and the work items on another color. Stick them on the wall, along with any other work items that were not mentioned
- Use marker or string to map the names to all the work items they have in flight
- On a separate wall, begin to call out the gaps. Are there work items that don’t have names attached to them? Are there names that are stretched across multiple work items?
- At this point, invite the leaders of the people and work items represented, and let them take a look at the walls. Explain how you created them and allow them to ask questions. Don’t suggest solutions, although if asked, invite them to be a part of the synthesis exercise
- With the core transformation team and any invited leaders, start discussing the gaps and stretches one by one. Start a list of work items that should be killed or sunset. Start another list of people who are over-committed who need things taken off their plate
- On a new wall, capture recommendations for how to solve the puzzle. A final list of work items that can be currently maintained, a backlog of work items postponed, and a list of cross-skilled teams to support the work – one team for one work item and as close to 100% dedication per person as possible
- (For some forward-leaning organizations, you may find a creative way to let people opt into the team or work item that they would most enjoy.)
Now, once you’ve reached go-time, spend an unreasonable amount of time designing fun and engaging experiences for communicating the new teams and co-locating. Provide as much choice as possible and freedom for teams to own and decide their new normals, design their spaces, etc.
Letting Your Teams Self-Organize
The approach listed above is quite prescribed. Top-down. Systematic. And if that doesn’t fit your situation, there is another option. We’ll call it ‘The Squeeze’. It’s much more organic and self-organizing – as long as you have the man-power to work with each team individually. Here it is:
- Make sure the team has broken down the work into small chunks (thin-slice stories if you’re working in Agile)
- Constrain the team to 1 single story for a one-week time period
- Communicate the strictness of sticking to 1 story for this short period of time – no switching to other types of work
- Communicate the freedom the team has to break down any barriers that are impeding the progress of completing this piece of work
- Observe (in a non-obtrusive way) who the team needs or invites to their table & how they interact differently
- After the time period is over, hold a reflection/feedback session to discuss how it went
- Based on who they had to bring into the team for help and/or who they had to painstakingly wait for, you now have a good starting point for who needs to come together as a new cross-functional team