Those silos are still around!

In thinking about this month’s topic on silo busting, I was reminded of my blog four years ago:

Following a successful workshop a couple of weeks ago on setting up a collaborative framework for a project with a bunch of internal staff, the manager said to me that she couldn't believe how well the group had worked together, and how "they got more done in 2 hours than we had done in the last 2 months!"

She was surprised, which struck me as a bit unusual until I realised how uncommon working well together must be in that organisation.

I reflected back on my 32 years in a big corporate in a past life and remembered the challenges I experienced in working with teams there- the constant battles between the organisational silos- engineering and production, HR and OD, marketing and sales- hoarding of information, and the strong positions and solution focus that each group took into each session. Then I realised that my recent client was experiencing that same culture of brick walls I had experienced for years.

I also realised that my experience of the last 12 years had been quite different, as I had got so used to a different pattern and so what we saw with the group was more the norm to me, but quite unusual for her.

While I was the facilitator in that case, it reminded me once again that it is not fundamentally the tools or skills I had that made the difference- it was the collaborative thinking that helped people work across their organisational boundaries - people getting to know each other better, willingness to share information, deeply listening to a diversity of views, and their willingness to take ownership of something that they felt important.

This resonated with me yesterday as I read a really interesting case study, where a government agency had focused on collaboration as a starting point to tackle the lack of innovation, in a traditional organisation.

In the case, the key agency Director acknowledges some of the challenges in changing the way the staff work given they felt overwhelmed, siloed, too busy, no info sharing, etc, and how "winning the hearts and minds" of the staff was key task for her collaboration facilitators.

So I'm now more mindful of the effect of the organisational "tribes" and the unconscious and mostly unintended influence they can have on getting good results together, and the power of collaboration in breaking up those silos.

So what have I learned in the meantime?

  • The dynamics around silos haven’t gone away
  • People are more aware of the issues around organisational barriers and how to respond with more useful collaborative behaviours:
    • Listen more
    • Pay attention to the relationships as well as the content
    • Share information
    • Check assumptions about each other
  • We’ve found that a simple tool can be really powerful in seeing each other in a new light by revealing and challenging such assumptions. Try it out here.


How are you finding those silos? A barrier - or an opportunity to learn and try new stuff?

The Joy of Silos

A quick search on the Net for ‘organisational silos’ generates an endless list of headlines such as:

  • Breaking down silos for customer experience
  • The silo mentality: how to break down the barriers
  • Six strategies for breaking down silos
  • How to fix workplace silos
  • Reasons to permanently remove your organisational silos”

The list goes on.

At the same time, my clients say things like:

  • “The two Divisions aren’t working together like I need them to. We have to get rid of these silos…”
  • “The left hand never seems to know what the right hand is doing around here. There’s too many silos…”
  • “The conflict seems to be growing between the groups because of our silo mentality”
  • They can’t sort out the problems themselves so things get escalated to me and I don’t have time to deal with that. I need help to break down these silos”

No surprises here, perhaps apart from the fact that we are still saying these things after who knows how many decades of effort to ‘fix’ silos. I suspect that people would have had very similar complaints soon after the dawn of bureaucracy and the large organisation, yet we keep repeating ourselves and keep seeking the solution.

Worse, most of my clients seem to spend most of their working life under a mind-numbing state of restructuring, that tiresome quest for the Nirvanas where structure lives but silos don’t.

Isn’t it time to acknowledge that the quest to restructure away or otherwise kill our silos is akin to the hunt for the unicorn? It’s probably time to give it a rest.

So if we admit defeat and stop trying to restructure our silos to extinction, what’s Plan B? I say it is time to embrace our silos; time to stop trying to kill them; time to stop fruitlessly redesigning them; time to stop using them as an excuse. It is time to learn to work across them effectively and make those silos hum.

This means we:

  • Cease the endless restructuring and work with what we’ve got.
  • Stop blaming the ‘silos’ for getting in the way
  • Stop blaming them – the other group – for being hard to work with or not ‘getting with the program’.

Instead, as organisations we:

  • Focus on building our relational capability and the skills we need to work with other humans;
  • Build our ability to work in complex situations, to think systemically across silos
  • Strengthen our collaborative muscles, which are a key to success regardless of the organisational structure.

And as individuals we switch the frame:

  • from competition across silos to collaboration
  • from mistrust to extending trust
  • from me to we
  • from telling to asking and listening.

These things are hard to do – perhaps harder than calling in an expert to lead a restructure process – but might it be that the hard road is the one that offers a road to improvement?

Perhaps it is time to love our silos.

The terrifying journey to co-design

When I was in high school I remember travelling to a school sports carnival in the city, an hour away to the north. The sports teacher drove us to the event in the school's hard-working minivan.

I live in the Illawarra on the NSW south coast. Returning home from the north requires the driver to leave the highlands and head down the notorious escarpment to the coastal plain. It is a long, steep decline and, as I learned that day, a potentially terrifying drive. On that particular day I had the misfortune to be in the front passenger seat. Normally this would be fine, but it quickly became abundantly clear that our sports teacher was a frustrated racing car driver. He piloted that van like his life depended on it, diving off the mountain and plunging at buttock-clenching speed down the Pass. I had a front row view of each and every near miss, grazed guard rail and hair-raising hair-pin bend. When we commenced that trip home I was a confident teenager in the prime of life. By the time we made it home I was a gibbering wreck. And the teacher? He was cool as a cucumber, unaware of the terror he'd inspired in me and others.

There are two long-term lessons I've carried with me from this (mis)adventure. First - never, ever get back in a van with my high school sports teacher. And second, having no control is a really scary position to be in. The thing is, I've been driving myself now for decades, and I've long realised that I too am a frustrated racing car driver. I often charge down the mountain, enjoying every near miss, grazed guard rail and hair-raising hair-pin. And at the bottom of the hill I'm not a gibbering wreck but a cool cucumber. As for my passengers? I'm not sure really. It isn't easy to talk to someone who seems to be curled up in a foetal position with the seatbelt clenched between their teeth and eyes out on stalks.

The difference is that as the driver I am in control. I have my hands on the wheel and I trust myself to get to the bottom of the hill safely. But as that schoolboy front seat passenger, I was along for the ride but my hands weren't on the wheel (they were mostly over my eyes as I recall). It was someone else's journey and I felt totally out of control. Not a nice feeling.

I've realised that this very same dynamic applies to problem-solving processes. If someone else is expecting me to participate in a process exclusively designed and run by them it can feel like plunging over the escarpment with a deranged teacher at the wheel. But when I am invited into co-designing the process I can feel more confident about how this is going to end. Getting my fingerprints on the process is like being at the wheel. If you want my buy-in then you'd better find a way to allow me some control not only of where we are going but how we plan to get there together. That is, don't just invite me in to work on the problem with you. Invite me in to help design how we are going to work on the problem together.

Our Collaboration System has a strong element of co-design built into it for just this reason. Co-designing process is an integral part of the collaborative journey. So my advice is to let your collaborators share the driving. The more control they have over 'their' process, the more commitment, energy and innovation they will bring to the task of solving problems together. With co-design you will be able to conquer any mountain together.

Fingerprints on the bypass

I was thinking about our topic this month of Co-design, or "getting fingerprints on the process" and it reminded me of a story from a couple of years ago.

"A roading authority was planning the route for a major highway bypass around a small coastal town that had been a traffic bottleneck for some time. One of the loud voices was a vehement environmental advocate and local Councillor who was strongly opposed to any bypass due to the adverse environmental impact on the surrounding farmland and forests.

Recognising the potential controversy, the authority put a lot of effort into involving the local stakeholders in the decision making on the bypass options. While being opposed to any option, the activist did participate in the process.

At the end when the preferred option was agreed and actioned, the activist reflected on his involvement, and reported that while he still disagreed with the decision to proceed with the bypass, he could live with the decision because of the way he had been involved - and in fact that he was quite supportive because of the way he saw his "fingerprints" on the process. He noted that the process had been open and fair, and he felt he and his views had been considered and respected, a range of views had been explored, and he had been able to influence the process in some way".

Knowing a bit about the activist's previous strong positions, I remember being a bit surprised at the time by his reaction- to seemingly support something so strongly at odds with his position.

In hindsight I now recognise some of the characteristics of the process that likely contributed to such an outcome:

  • an invitation to participate
  • the authority sharing power a little, just in terms of how to do the assessment
  • feeling listened to, involved and respected
  • the authority sharing information openly helping to build trust
  • people feeling ownership of the selection process, leading to an increased commitment to the outcome
  • the authority asking for help and not just imposing either the process or solution

These are some of the elements of co-design that we see as a critical step in getting from argument to agreement on tricky issues.

How often might you bypass the fingerprints?

Listening and the Politics of Humiliation

Why do you listen to people? When I ask this question of clients and others I tend to get answers focussed on the content: "listening lets me learn something I don't know". There is no argument from me on that point. But why would you listen to others when you don't think you can learn anything from them? One obvious answer is that you are probably wrong about that, and you almost certainly will learn something. But here I'm interested in another answer that is important to all collaborators.

In a recent opinion piece, New York Times Columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote about the "politics of humiliation" and suggested that humiliation is one of the strongest, most motivating emotions we can experience. He quotes Nelson Mandela as saying "there is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated". Then Friedman goes on to make the point that the countervailing emotion is respect. "If you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them".

And this brings me to the second answer to my earlier question. One of the reasons to really listen to someone, even when we don't expect to learn something from them, is to show them respect and affirm their dignity. As Friedman writes: "Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening - not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words."

Those who feel humiliated will never collaborate; Those who feel disrespected will never collaborate; Those who feel unheard or ignored will never collaborate unless and until they feel respected. And as Friedman says, one way to clearly demonstrate our respect for another is to listen to them deeply.

Friedman is writing in the context of US politics, but the message seems universal to me. In order to work effectively with others to tackle hard problems together we need to genuinely respect them, and demonstrate that respect in the way we act. Listening holds the key.

So now let me listen to you. What is your takeaway from Friedman's article?

The Presence of Trust

When this photo (the one of the guy on the motor bike) comes up on a screen in a collaboration workshop or conversation as an example of trust, everyone laughs!  It is clear that those standing on their heads must trust the guy on the motorbike!

I’ve pondered about this thing we call trust.  I’ve read the books.  I’ve interrogated my own experiences as an employee, a traveller in foreign lands, a mature-aged student, a manager, a consultant, a company director, a mother, step-mother and grandmother.  I’ve asked myself ... what is trust?  Why is it so important in human relationships and human communication? How do we build it?  How do we lose it?  How do we rebuild it when it’s been lost?

Trust is the glue of individual relationships, therefore of communities, of organisations and societies. It’s what makes them tick and stick. When it is present, we are willing, even eager, to be part of a group whose purpose and values we expect to share.  We are willing to step into mutual interdependence with other people, even when we don’t know them yet or have a history with them. When trust is not present, or we need to build it from scratch with a new group, we don’t immediately engage with people we don’t know.  We wait until we are drawn in by the empathy and energy of a group. If trust doesn’t build, then early relationships may become fragmented, we feel uneasy and mistrust emerges.

So how do we build trust? The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying ‘To earn trust, money and power aren’t enough; you have to show some concern for others. You can’t buy trust in the supermarket.’ Stephen M.R. Covey (the son of the Stephen Covey who wrote the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) suggests that a key principle of trust is that ‘You first have to trust yourself, because trust is similar to confidence’. 

What I’ve learned is that trusting yourself is important.  You won’t be confident that others will keep their word, will be sincere and authentic, will be open and transparent, will work with you productively, if you know you don’t behave like that yourself.  Behaviour comes from personal values, so holding values such as integrity, dependability, openness, fairness and equity and recognising their importance in relationships, will help each of us act in a way that encourages others to trust us.

Recently being asked to design and run a program for a client whose staff will need to do their work in fire-ravaged, damaged and traumatised communities, has reminded me about the importance of empathy as part of building trust.  If we are to communicate effectively with people, we must start by listening ... not just hearing, but actively listening to understand.  ‘Walking in other people’s shoes’ for a little while helps build trust, and by doing so we can better understand and empathise with their situation.  In short, we need to build trusting relationships before trying to help, or transacting.

Finally, a key component of trust is the ability always to be your authentic self. Someone who never admits mistakes or shares their human side, rarely hears truth from others. If you are able to admit being wrong, to acknowledge and apologise for errors or mistakes when they happen, to admit to being unsure or not knowing and to ask for help, this very vulnerability will help others to trust.

Trust is the core of a group or team’s capability to collaborate. It’s worth the effort of building trust within any group of collaborators, starting with trusting yourself to do so, because trust is the glue that keeps the collaborators collaborating.    

Four ways to build collaborative habits in the workplace (despite weak flesh)

"Reverting to the usual way of doing things is a deceptively easy default option and often appears to be lower risk than trying something different."

So said someone in their response to our recent survey. It reminded me of another quote which has been around a little longer:  "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation. The Spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak".

In terms of collaboration - and to be honest, most other contexts - I can definitely relate to the idea that while the intention to do something different is there, it can be difficult to stick with the change. Just today, for example, I realised I have participated in a series of one-off conversations around a group, rather than finding a way to get the group together. The outcome has been some confusion, when shared clarity would have been so easy. Yet I got lazy and reverted to business as usual. Definitely some weak flesh here folks.

It is a good reminder of why many clients find it very difficult to achieve a change that sticks, despite knowing that more collaborative behaviours are useful. Behaving differently requires us to, well, behave differently, and as I can attest, that isn't easy. As always, this brings me to the role of mindset, or how we think. It is very clear that, while being more effective as collaborators is about doing things differently, what it is REALLY about is thinking differently. In order to 'do' collaboration we must 'be' collaborative.

So what does it take to think differently in order to avoid sliding back to business as usual ways of working? We are still finding the answer to this question, but here are some things that seem to help.

  1. Learning by doing is powerful. Trying different behaviours, perhaps not always getting them right, but going again.
  2. The magic training intervention is a myth. Time is required to build new patterns of thought. It can't happen overnight so don't expect it to.
  3. Reflection on 'my' mindset is essential. Ask yourself, how am I thinking about this situation, this person or team, and what are the implications of that? If I was thinking like a collaborator, what would I do differently?
  4. Do your learning together with your collaborators. Make it public and make it part of the process. Learn to collaborate by collaborating to learn.

I wonder what your experience has been. If you are like me, then sliding out of the collaborative mindset is an ever-present threat. It is for this reason we have been working on a Collaborative Project Guide (watch this space) to support teams to collaborate more effectively by working differently, despite the gravitational pull of business as usual. While our spirit is willing, we hope the Guide will help our flesh be strong.

Fear of failure - does it shut us down or drive us?

Perhaps fear of failure starts at school where the words ‘failure’ and ‘fail’ are scary. They are represented by teachers and parents as something definitely undesirable. I was a bright kid in a small primary school in the UK, so I didn’t come into contact with those words until, at age 11, I went to grammar school, where I was among lots of other bright kids in a much larger school with regular tests and exams.

Used to being near the top of a small class, I found myself struggling. Tests and examinations became opportunities to fail. “What did you get?” was a common question as results were handed out. Failures made me feel inadequate and less worthy. I didn’t always meet my own expectations let alone the expectations of teachers, friends and family.

These failures at school, while uncomfortable, didn’t frighten me or shut me down. I think I just redefined my future. I decided on exploration as my next step rather than university and a specific career. I might have experienced failure academically, but I wasn’t going to fail at work or at life.  I’d be successful if I applied myself, stayed open to new experiences, met new people, travelled to new places, set and met my own goals and lived the life I chose. My inevitable failures would be temporary and be learning experiences.

These beliefs drove me. With every move, every new opportunity, every compliment, I gained confidence. I even tried academia again ... and succeeded.

But situations where the possibility of failure disables me and makes me vulnerable are still there. One of those is giving ‘expert’ presentations. Standing on a platform, being an expert on something, giving advice from a podium gives me serious imposter anxiety. I don’t like pontificating. I don’t like talking ‘at’ people. I feel vulnerable in a way I never do when in conversation with others where I love to listen and engage. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

No-one enjoys failure. No-one enjoys failing. However, working in the complex space, in uncertainty, just trying something is a useful strategy ... and whether our experiment or trial succeeds or fails, we will learn. Failure is just a detour not a dead end.

Failing my way to expert status

It's official. I'm now an expert! How do I know? I've just been appointed to an "expert panel" so it must be true. Over the next six months or so I will be working with some eminent scientists on some challenging water quality issues in coastal lakes.

It's great to be an expert, or at least I feel it should be, but I'm learning that it comes with its own challenges. What I have quickly recognised is that while part of me is pleased with the label, another part of me is going "oh no, what if I'm not expert enough? What if I get it wrong? What if I make a mistake?" In other words, now I'm an expert, the fear of failure is all the greater.

I've been pondering over the weekend and have decided on three little strategies to help me confront failure and cope with the inner doubter. Of course, they may not be very helpful, I wonder if they're wrong....? Oh no what if they don't work!!

...Ahem. Anyway, here is my plan:

  1. I'm going to keep in mind that on the complex issues we'll be dealing with as an expert panel, there is never a single right answer. Yet I know that stakeholders, and perhaps my fellow panellists, will at times be looking to me for 'the answer', and the urge to meet their expectations will be incredibly strong. But I will try to resist and instead invite them into our shared uncertainty, rather than fall into the expert trap.
  2. I'm going to listen to my own language. Specifically I want to hear myself say "I don't know" as often as I provide an 'expert' answer. This can be hard to do, but I take comfort in my belief that expertise surely resides in knowing the limits to our knowledge?
  3. I will seek to acknowledge the expertise of my fellow panellists, while avoiding putting them in the same expert trap. After all, I'm as comforted as the next person by the 'right' answers of specialists, so when I'm feeling uncertain I'll be just as prone to seek refuge in their expertise, and they will be just as likely to feel pressure to be seen to have an answer for me.

So these three strategies are my way of managing my own fear of failure. If you have experienced something similar, perhaps you could share the ways in which you have been expert in a complex world in which 'failure' is unavoidable.

Is uncertainty good or bad? 4 different views + mine

To me, uncertainty is a state of not knowing. it’s when we can’t make sense of what is happening; it’s when we don’t know what will happen next; and worst of all it’s when we don’t know what WE SHOULD DO next.

Is this positive or negative? When uncertainty, unpredictability and not knowing feels uncomfortable, is it useful to invent or pretend certainty?

For many professionals to admit to being uncertain or not knowing is ‘career limiting’.  Careers are built on knowledge, on having answers, on solving problems. Leaders advance within organisations by knowing what to do, when to do it and why their solution will work.

Michael Lewis, author and financial journalist, says: ‘In the world we live in, political leaders don’t acknowledge uncertainty because it means admitting the possibility of error. The entire profession has arranged itself as if to confirm the wisdom of its decisions.’

However, not everyone sees uncertainty as negative. Austin Kleon, in his book ‘10 ways to be creative in good times and bad’, says: ‘To be 100% certain of who you are and what you do ... is not only completely overrated, it is also a roadblock to discovery.’

In my work over the past decade, I have become very aware of the dangers of knowing, of being the expert, and how it can be a roadblock to curiosity. The opposite of being certain doesn’t mean floundering in uncertainty. In my world the opposite of being certain, of being the expert, of having the answer, is being open, curious and willing to embrace the challenges of paradox rather than having a definite answer that closes off possibilities.

Lee Iacocca, the man who ran the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s and Chrysler in the 1980s, was pretty clear. He advised his executives that when they were faced with a sticky or tricky problem and weren’t sure of what to do next that they should: ‘Do anything ... something long as you don’t just don't sit there. If you screw it up, start over. Try something else. If you wait until you've satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.’

One of my favourite 21st century authors Yuval Noah Harari believes that to survive and flourish in today’s uncertain world, we need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. He says we will have to repeatedly let go of some of what we know best and feel at home with the unknown.

So, let’s learn to sit in the current uncertainty, even when it feels uncomfortable. Let’s take some of this advice and try stuff. Let’s be mentally flexible, emotionally balanced, open, curious and willing to embrace the challenges we face.

A friend recently commented how refreshing she found it when, in this current uncertainty, our leaders are able to admit to not knowing. They acknowledge that what we are facing is new and ‘unprecedented’, and there is no way of predicting with any certainty what is going to happen.  They are trying things, based on what they do know, while they monitor outcomes and learn from situations around the world. I think this is real progress.