Silo Busting Strategy #2: Attend, Befriend, Defend

January 8, 2011

There is a simple slogan that we can use when trying to approach groups in silos: attend, befriend, and defend. The idea works like this:


The first thing that we need to do is make ourselves available to the group as much as we can. We need to show up for the team meetings or events. In lean terms, you might think of it as going to the gemba. You need to be where the action is. This may involve getting yourself invited to meetings, usually the most boring and uninteresting meetings. You take anything you can get. Then you have to be there all the time, religiously. They have to come to believe that you are genuinely interested and part of their process.


Once you have the attendance part down, then it is time to make a few friends. You need to be that smiling face in the room that is ready and willing to help with even the most inconsequential problems. In fact, beginning with the small problems is probably the best way to start. We need to be there to offer help, and then when the offer is accepted, deliver. This is really all about building up trust with the new group. It is just trust with only you, but you have to start somewhere. You do everything you can to build that relationship. Go out for a beer, Invite them to your team meetings, join the softball team. Do whatever it takes.


Finally, it is inevitable that they are facing challenges; this is where you can really make a difference. When the opportunity arises, be there to defend the group. Make sure that you radiate the fact that you trust and support the work the group does. Not only does this serve to cement the trust you are trying to build within the group, but it also informs the rest of the organization that you are working together and share common goals.


Silo Busting Strategy #1: Understand the Problem Deeply

January 7, 2011

All too often, when we are working with another group their behavior can appear mysterious and difficult to explain. Frequently this is an indication that they are grappling with issues or problems that are not immediately visible to you as an outsider. One classic example is goal setting. While goal setting within groups or divisions is quite common, those groups do not share division specific goals with other groups within the organization. The failure to reconcile the often different and frequently competing goals between different groups in an organization is often the source of many misunderstandings.

So what can we do about this sort of misalignment? First, we can attempt to find out what the goals of the group are. Knowing group goals will help you understand what is motivating the decisions and processes that a group uses. It will also reveal opportunities to support those goals. That kind of understanding will carry us a long way toward building the kinds of organizational bridges that we need to create in order to begin breaking down silos.

We must understand the struggles that the group is dealing with. Is the group short-staffed? Do they have problem people whom they constantly struggle with? Are they learning to cope with a new system? Are they struggling to carry out a complex project? These sorts of issues are the types of problems that cause teams to change their processes and behaviors, often in a defensive reaction to the challenges that they face. Understand the problems, and you can often better understand the behavior surrounding it. Better yet, by understanding the problem you might be in a position to help them address the issue. Help them address the issue, and you will have gone a long ways toward opening new doors between your groups. It is actually a case of impediment removal applied to the organization as opposed to just the team.

If you are looking for a tool to help you accomplish this sort of organizational archeology, I have had some good success using root cause analysis. The application of structured thinking and problem solving techniques can help to sort out areas of opportunity for helping another group slay the dragons that plague them.


Things That Divide Us

January 2, 2011

Organizational silos are the source of the most pernicious dysfunctions you can find within any company. What is a silo? Silos are the walls or barriers that we erect in order to separate “us” from “them.”

We are the ultimate corporate reductionists. We divide everyone in the organization down into the most specialized roles that we can tolerate and then we struggle to produce a product using the result. That division ends up reflected in everything that we do, from the products that we produce to the way that we hire new people to help us.

We break things down in so many ways that it boggles the imagination. For example:

  1. Management Responsibility: Executives, Managers, Workers
  2. Roles in the Product Development Process: Sales, Marketing, Development, Architecture, Project Management, QA, Operations, Customer Service
  3. Parts of the Application: UI, Middleware, DB
  4. Locations: Headquarters, satellite offices, international
  5. Languages: C++, Java, Ruby, English, French
  6. Processes: RUP, Agile, Lean

This is just a small sampling of some of the ways in which we divide ourselves within organizations. These divisions serve to isolate people in the organization within hyper-specialized roles. Ostensibly, we do this in order to help people succeed. The Justification might be that no one can be equally good at everything. Therefore, we compartmentalize our lives and those around us in order to filter out the extraneous noise. We try to create a space for focus and success. Ultimately, it is all an effort to help us manage the scope of the learning that needs to take place. All of these goals are necessary and helpful and they are things that come with a price.

Some of the costs of all of this division and compartmentalization are:

  1. Lost knowledge of upstream and downstream processes
  2. Lacking a holistic understanding of the product
  3. A narrow view of the people involved in product development
  4. Often little or no knowledge of the business domain itself

Of course, it does not have to be this way. You can deliver a product successfully without compartmentalizing everyone and everything in an organization within an inch of its life. It requires a different mindset. One needs inter-disciplinary thinking that considers different skills and tries to synthesize a whole rather than divide. This requires a mindset that favors skill over roles, knowledge over assignment.

This focus needs to extend through the entire human dimension: from the self, to the team, and all the way through the organization. In terms of the self, we need to be well-rounded product developers: people who appreciate the logic, art, science, and beauty of our craft and our product. As teams, we need to have the proper balance of skills, from development, QA, the customer, and delivery. Moreover, as an organization, we need to have the people in place to help support the teams and the people on the teams to develop themselves and deliver the best products.

Once we can do that, once we can see ourselves as more than cogs in a machine, once we can collaborate to craft beautiful things, and once the organization can appreciate the beauty of not only the products, but the people who create them, then we can move away from these silos that handicap our organizations now.