Don’t Break Down Silos, Bend Them

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Feb 23, 2018

Conventional wisdom tells us that the best way to deal with organizational silos is simply to break them. Whether it’s the inward focus of HR departments or the “tower vision” that blinds leaders to surrounding issues and events, silos must be torn down – or so they say.

The problem with extreme thinking is that it’s rarely correct. On a functional basis, silos do a lot of good: They provide service specialization. They create defined work structures. And they foster a deep sense of socialization and interaction among colleagues. Hardly a reason to bring out the wrecking ball.

Instead of trying to break silos, we should bend them. A more effective approach is to find the touch points that run among different departments and begin to form what I call “genius bonds” – networked connections that speed the flow of information and bring together the very best ideas and talents across teams. In this framework, specialized units or departments retain their unique function within the organization, just arched differently. The goal is not to eliminate silos but to address the problems they cause: lack of collaboration, drags in communication, and diminished trust.

In The Feedback Fix, I show how companies who managed to bend silos achieve breakthrough success. In 2011, when Nest Labs started developing its first learning thermostat, it knew that it had to do more than just produce a marvel of artificial intelligence capable of saving people energy. It needed to sell consumers on the merits of energy conservation.

Creative abrasion

So Nest assembled a cross-functional team made up of engineers, designers and marketing executives to link all stages of product design. These traditionally siloed departments leaned into each other’s space and brought specialized knowledge to bear during critical stages of development.

This process of “creative abrasion” set the conditions for ideas to be tested and challenged productively. For their part, the engineers succeeded in designing a device that taught itself to raise and lower temperatures based on homeowners’ schedules. The marketers infused the concept with the Nest Leaf, a clever display feature that rewarded homeowners for choosing an energy-saving temperature.

The engineers mastered the intricacies of AI. The marketers leveraged the human need for recognition and control. Working together, these departments formed genius bonds that gave rise to a product smart enough to make a difference, and sexy enough that people actually wanted to buy it. Instead of hoarding talent in silos, Nest sparked collaboration among teams.

Cleveland Clinic’s change

Silo-bending can also lead to better service outcomes. In 2008, the Cleveland Clinic – arguably one of the world’s best healthcare centers – got a devastating prognosis: negative patient feedback. Patients gave the hospital low marks for room cleanliness, noise levels and doctor-nurse communication. Hospital floors with as many as three separate specialties and staffs operated in silos. In effect, there was a wide gap between the level of care and how patients experienced that care during their hospital stay.

That began to change once Cleveland Clinic instituted a practice of weekly huddles among caregivers. Doctors, nurses, case managers, head of housekeeping assembled to discuss patients, raise concerns, and coordinate care-giving measures. Now considered a standard of patient care, these huddles not only increased the overall efficiency of patient flow, but also delivered a more complete picture of patient care. By causing these entrenched silos to bend, the Cleveland Clinic turned specialization into a force for collaboration.

How can your organization get better at silo-bending?

3  ways to bend the silos

1. Get teams to bump up against each other

Find opportunities for creative collision between teams. For all the hype about offices that are cubicle-free, it’s important to consider how all that open space can be used for intentional interactions. A few ideas: Arrange a company read or monthly lunch-and-learn series. Align business goals with team-building exercises that match different units and departments within the organization. Town halls may be great for big announcements, but what about a “village square” for less formal but frequent gatherings of your employees? Putting a premium on meaningful interactions won’t eliminate the silos, but it certainly shaves off the rough edges.

2. Increase people’s capacity for empathy

Empathy is the signature skill of collaboration. It comes from seeing things from another person’s perspective, and while that’s not easy to achieve, research shows it surfaces at a young age. In one study, researchers gave a group of infants ranging from 14 to 18 months two bowls of food: one containing Goldfish crackers and the other filled with broccoli. As the infants gobbled up the Goldfish and ignored the broccoli, researchers ate from the same two bowls – except this time, they showed visible signs of disgust while eating the crackers and obvious delight while eating the broccoli. When researchers stuck out their hands to receive food, the infants were more likely to give them a broccoli – as much as 7 times out of 10. Even though the infants favored Goldfish, they could already sense that their adult companions had a stronger preference for broccoli.  If infants can reason past their own desires and demonstrate empathy, surely we can do the same.

3. Create channels of information sharing

Nothing screams “silo” like a bottleneck. When information is slow to reach various departments, the drag creates distrust and discord in the workplace. The best companies I’ve worked with know how to ensure that information continues to move at a steady pace throughout the organization. Creating a culture of information sharing is the cornerstone of strong teams.

Take the way Facebook onboards all of its engineers. Rather than putting them through standard HR training, it requires new hires to participate in an intensive six-week program called Bootcamp. According to Andrew Bosworth, who helped launched the program, Facebook’s goal is to “immerse the new engineer into our code base, give greater flexibility in choosing a project, and promote the types of habits that would allow us to scale up our organization.” The premium on information sharing – fixing bugs from the live site, building internal tools, and making improvements to Facebook’s infrastructure – not only gives new engineers the chance to immediately work on and solve real problems, it also fosters a culture of information sharing that permeates the culture long after engineers land in different functional units.

Cooperation, communication, and collaboration are the three keys to working across silos. The remedy to a silo isn’t a sledgehammer, but a shoehorn – something that allows the space inside the silo to fit in more seamlessly with its surroundings. If we focus on bending silos rather than eliminating them entirely, we’ll create stronger organizations and better relationships among the people who serve them.

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