The most powerful resource you hold as an organization is collective insight. Deep wells of expertise exist across your enterprise that combined could drive powerful new solutions. Yet it can be very hard to blend and apply that knowledge.
One of the biggest barriers is that knowledge lives in silos: organizational compartments whose inhabitants have different mental models of the business they’re in, and different cultural norms. These gaps block collaboration and keep minds operating in day-to-day channels.
Silos exist for a reason. Specialized groups enable the focus and expertise needed to tackle complex disciplines. Additionally, the principle of Dunbar’s number shows that groups of about 150 or smaller can better maintain meaningful acquaintanceships and strong social cohesion. But when it comes to innovation, not working successfully across silos imposes tremendous risk.
How the iPod defeated Sony
The Sony Digital Music Player is a legendary example. Seeking to build on the success of its hugely disruptive Walkman, and holding a musical catalog that was the envy of the industry, Sony was a shoo-in to develop the first digital music player. But riven by isolated silos, the company ended up developing two competing players—and was quickly shut out of the market by the superior iPod. No coincidence that Apple’s culture, then as now, demanded broad collaboration and systems thinking.
In the years since, big organizations have tried to tackle the silo problem in many ways. New employee bootcamps and rotation programs that build cross-organizational relationships. Architecture that places a premium on serendipitous interaction. Hackathons and other special projects that unite diverse teams. New organizational designs centered on customer needs rather than traditional specialties. All of these have value, and all require sustained investment.
In helping many teams mobilize their insights to drive initiatives forward, we’re less focused on those macro solutions and more on tactical methods that can bridge silos enough to get something done. We can’t help noticing that when we bring diverse operational teams for workshops, they huddle together during breaks, catching up on developments and exchanging questions. Their desire to blend their knowledge is obvious. Here are some techniques that we use to help them do it effectively. They fall into three broad areas: culture, language, and methods.
A cross-functional team is an instant community—and like any community, it thrives or falters on the strength of its culture. However, you can kindle a healthy culture even in a newly formed group.
Choose the participants, if you’re able to. You want a range of experience, but also a collaborative spirit and open minds. Seek both people deeply immersed in the topic and those who will bring a fresh perspective. While diversity of thought is essential, feel free to skip over anyone likely to play the role of saboteur or narrow-minded crusader. It’s not all that different from the art of planning a good dinner party.
Create a team charter, even if the team is convening for only a single project. Work together to envision the end state you’re going to achieve. Listen to understand what’s important to each participant and draft an inclusive set of objectives. Set ground rules by which you agree to operate. For example, ThoughtForm’s rules include “No long speeches” and “Be present.”
Maintain a meta-conversation about how the team is working together, separate from the work itself. For example, are you seeing anti-collaborative behaviors like communicating disrespectfully or working through shadow channels? Just as important, are there worthy achievements by individuals or the team that can be acknowledged and celebrated?
Enable personal connections. A team that knows each other only as Brady Bunch squares in a meeting app can’t build the trust they need to cross silo boundaries. Redefine personal chats from time-wasting to team-building. Use the time before meetings get started to ask different team members about themselves, hold icebreaker exercises that encourage everyone to share something personal, and schedule virtual (or real) happy hours to talk outside of project bounds.
Separated teams develop different mental models of the products, processes, and strategies they are meant to hold in common. You may find them using terms in common yet failing to connect because they use them to mean different things. Spend time to uncover these gaps and get onto the same page.
Build a common language. Identify ten or 20 terms that represent core concepts of the project and work together to craft agreed-on definitions. These may include key roles in the organization, methods and processes, strategic concepts, and products or services. Likely there will be some acronyms. Record the definitions where the team can refer to them, especially those who onboard later.
Trade elevator pitches. Each of you have been working on a piece of the puzzle. Take a page from Shark Tank and pitch your projects to each other to help reveal the whole picture. Put your deck aside and focus on answering just three questions: How would I sum up the piece I’m working on? Where does it fit in the bigger picture? How will it create value? Once you hear each pitch, ask questions — not to challenge, but to understand.
Overthrow the tyranny of expertise. Often, whoever can riff about a strategy at length—complete with buzzwords and acronyms—becomes the de facto expert. Reverse this value structure and make plain language your currency. Celebrate those among you who are brave enough to stand up and say, “I don’t understand.” Don’t be satisfied until you can explain the strategy successfully to a non-expert outside your team.
Build a shared story. Stories have a way of creating a throughline that cuts across competing views of a developing strategy. The story can trace the steps by which you will deliver a service or benefit, or it can follow how the user will experience it. Work together on a whiteboard or with stickies to get the sequence down. Once you have this throughline, you can layer in the processes, services, and technology needed to make all of that happen.
Draw pictures. By making key relationships visible, drawings can be a powerful way to align mental models across teams. There are many possible views of a strategy. An ecosystem view shows how the new initiative sits relative to the enterprise, marketplace, and key partners. An offering architecture view shows how products or services are organized. A value creation view shows how you will transform inputs into value-adds.
Create persistent knowledge. Have you ever joined in a productive discussion only to be left with nothing but sketchy recollections? At ThoughtForm we’ve always used whiteboards to keep developing ideas visible and persistent. Now, digital whiteboarding tools are taking the party online. We use digital whiteboarding with our clients to co-develop ideas, explore new possibilities, sort information, and set priorities. It enables everyone to witness what’s unfolding, even asynchronously. And it helps team members quickly acclimate to the group’s way of thinking and working.
Your organization can’t afford to live in silos.
At ThoughtForm, we love helping teams work together to envision their path forward and create a roadmap to get there. We’ve seen firsthand how organizations can learn to navigate complexity and create a collaborative, innovative culture that promotes transformational thinking.