We meet with and coach a lot of teams from a wide variety of backgrounds and sectors, made up of people from all over the world. Despite this diversity, there are some common issues that come up for everyone. One of the most common things we hear is ‘we have a silo mentality, and we want to change it to be more collaborative and work cross functionally’. Does this sound familiar?
Why is Working in Silos Such a Common Complaint?
Back in the pre-industrial revolution days, and before the invention of the manufacturing production line approach, we mostly worked on an artisanal basis. A carpenter worked from start to finish to produce a chair. Yes, there were apprentices but essentially, there wasn’t the complex, hierarchical structure that was to follow. The industrial revolution and the production line changed the way we work into compartmentalizing all the different actions required to produce a product or service into efficient, separate departments and functions.
This was a necessity of the new model of working, and in the 20th century, it worked well. Team A worked alone to produce something that went to team B to do the next bit, and so on. You didn’t need to work collaboratively, you just focused on your separate tasks.
Now, in the 21st Century, how we work has been flipped on its head. The IT revolution and all its associated innovations in how we can communicate, share information and do things differently has meant we have a fare greater opportunity to unleash the power in human collaboration like never. We have visibility and accessibility to each other and to more information than we have ever had before. And this means we see the opportunity to work more collaboratively – yet we can’t seem to do so. Why?
The Collaboration Paradox
Traditionally, human beings are naturally collaborative animals. For 99.9% of our existence on this planet, we worked together in small, familiar, collaborative groups, like troops of chimpanzees. However, at the same time, we also honed a deeply held fear of the unknown, where we don’t trust others outside our tribe or immediate group, who don’t share our values and purpose.
Translate these factors into the modern workplace, and you get a paradox: we are able to collaborate, and we want to do so, but that desire just doesn’t translate to action – maybe we don’t know and therefore trust the people we are expected to collaborate with, or because we perceive a lack of common purpose, we are loathe to collaborate.
To put this into context, we often hear of clashes between sales teams and the operations or delivery team that has to do the work that the sales team has promised to the client. There’s friction, difficult communication, division and blame. Maybe the sales team have made promises the delivery team don’t feel they can deliver, or the operations team says no, we can’t do that, frustrating the salesperson who has targets to hit and a client to please.
Or, a marketing team has difficulty working with a team in the organisation that is based in another country. Their most frequent communication is by email, most of them haven’t met each other, they speak different languages and there is often misunderstanding and frustration.
In both these examples, the organisation might know it needs to work more collaboratively, but things like incomplete relationships, clouded communication and confusion over purpose are getting in the way.
How to work More Collaboratively
Nearly every team wants to work more collaboratively, but they struggle to do so. Here’s a few things you can do to promote better collaboration in your team.
Break from the Past
Sometimes teams are working with a toxic history of complaint and blame about the other people or teams they are expected to collaborate with, due to things that have already taken place. We are sadly able to hold grudges for a long time, and it is necessary to clear the air and draw a line in the sand. This might be a bit daunting but a carefully managed process of communication to address what can often be an elephant in the room is a great first step to creating reconciliation and better, more positive connection between the parties involved.
Create Understanding & Empathy
Sometimes we even create silos where they don’t actually exist on an org chart, because we don’t understand the other person’s situation, motivations, problems or desires. Whether you are talking about collaboration between individuals, functions or whole companies across continents, it’s vital to create empathy for the other party and create a deep understanding of where each party stands. What’s their situation? Why do they act a certain way? How can you work with that with appreciation and respect for them, and vice versa? Once you know this, you are more likely to be able to create a stronger relationship and interdependency, and you are more likely to create a willingness to help someone else.
Communicate Across Functions and Teams
Sometimes we are not working collaboratively because we don’t know the people on the other team we are supposed to collaborate with. Set up as many opportunities as practical to build relationships with other people in the teams. Ideally do this face to face, because there is still no substitution for being in the same space as another human being when it comes to the opportunity to build relationships. We connect more with people we know and are more likely to do something for a familiar face than an anonymous name on an email chain or org chart.
You don’t have to get everyone to know everyone else though – in large organisations this is impractical. One good idea is to have a collaboration champion who you identify as the charismatic connector – someone who loves to meet others and is enthusiastic about the concept of connecting with other teams or people. Make it these people’s job to connect with the collaboration champions on other teams, and they facilitate the relationship and flow of information and tasks between the different parties.
Create a Common Purpose
Going back to the example earlier of the sales and delivery teams who clash. They have different goals and expectations which they perceive to be contradictory – but aren’t they pulling together to the greater common goals of the organisation as a whole? Sometimes we lose sight of these whilst we are stuck in the trenches of our day to day work, and it’s necessary to get these teams together to either define or revisit a compelling, meaningful common purpose for them both together, and make sure that their separate goals feed into this bigger sense of purpose. (Stay tuned for more on purpose when it comes to collaboration – it’s so important we will be covering this in a future post as a topic in its own right).
If you like what we have said about cross functional or departmental collaboration, and would like to learn how to do this with your team, please contact us on email@example.com