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?

There is co-design, and then there is co-design...

Co-design is a word on many lips these days, but at Twyfords we believe that there is co-design, and then there is co-design!

When most policy makers refer to co-design they are typically referring to a process that invites stakeholders in to jointly solve a particular problem. From our work we have developed a different, more specific understanding, reflected in our Power of Co framework.

In the Power of Co framework Co-design is one part of a structured, holistic collaborative process. While the whole framework is about inviting stakeholders in to tackle complex problems together, co-design is specifically about ensuring that stakeholders have their fingerprints on the process. In other words, it tells us that successful collaboration requires that all collaborators have a say in how they will work together. They are not simply invited into a pre-defined collaborative process. They are invited in to help design it – every step of the way.

Having worked on some very complex collaborations we have learned the importance of getting fingerprints on process. When stakeholders share process decisions they:

  • Become more invested in and supportive of the process, which really helps when things get tough and trust becomes critical;
  • Are more likely to accept outcomes of the process because they had a share in designing it;
  • Add their intelligence and creativity to ensure the process works best for everyone;
  • Step up and share accountability for how this process is running;
  • Feel like partners rather than pawns in someone else’s process fantasy (they are done ‘with’ not done ‘to’);
  • Develop trust and a stronger working relationship.

When you have worked with the Power of Co for some time, the idea of co-design becomes second nature and an integral part of your daily work. Rather than sitting at your desk sweating over how to run the next meeting you will find yourself asking participants what they would like to do. Instead of trying to work out what information your stakeholders will find most useful, you will ask them. Rather than mapping out the Gantt chart for the project and doing it ‘to’ your stakeholders you will plan each step with your collaborators as you go.

So when you next hear someone saying they are running a “co-design process”, you might ask just how much involvement stakeholders have had in co-designing the process. If the answer is “not much, but they are involved in finding a solution” then perhaps a critical piece of collaboration has been overlooked.

Do your stakeholders have their fingerprints on your processes?

To find out a little more about how we see co-design, take a look at our co-design guide.

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 Agony of Silence

Thinking about this month's theme of listening I've been reflecting on why I find it so hard to be silent in a group environment- to pause and wait for others to speak. In my experience as a facilitator and coach, I feel this tension almost every time I work. That growing anxiety as I pause and wait for input or a response from someone else in the room or on the zoom call. But why do I feel this way?

  • Is it that I feel inadequate if I'm not contributing or controlling the conversation?
  • Is it that I worry my client won't be getting value if I'm not talking?
  • Is it that I just have so much valuable stuff to say that I must get it out?
  • Is it that I don't want to give others a chance to get their threepence worth in?
  • Am I worried that they might say something contradictory?
  • or even worse, they might say something more insightful or valuable than I could?

The palpable tension as the pause lengthens, and silence fills the space.

What are they thinking? Will someone step up? What happens if they don't, and will it seem like I've wasted their valuable time being quiet.

It's a ridiculous fear really, that a 30-second pause might result in a failure to meet a deadline, or get a job done, or meet the boss's needs, particularly as we have already used 10 times more than that on arguing who is right or wrong on some aspect of the issue.

And then relief! Someone steps in with an insight, a question, a comment, an idea. It cascades from there like a dam has broken and overwhelms those assumptions and anxieties.

So I have learnt that the pain of being silent is one of the keys to listening more effectively. But this insight doesn't make it any easier to keep my mouth shut for those seemingly interminable seconds!

A hop, skip and jump into collaboration

When facing any problem at work, our natural tendency as a leader is to seek a clear process to find solutions.

A step by step guide that gives us confidence we are on the right track, and can get the desired outcome. It would seem that part of the attraction is our need to know, and to be seen as a good problem solver (otherwise we might look a bit incompetent??)

Now it seems that in a lot of circumstances this works just great, but what about those wicked and complex problems where our standard problem solving fail and we need new thinking to tackle it together.

We've spent a fair bit of time trying to make sense of this dilemma- how to provide a step by step guide to solve complex issues when the nature of complexity dictates that a linear approach will fail!

Our insight is that we need to treat such situations more like a dance than a climb- taking a flexible approach allows for the emergence necessary when taking a more collaborative approach.

We can still generate a framework and set of tools in a logical sequence to provide guidance, but we are seeing growing evidence with clients that being able to "hop, skip and jump" is key to success. This might look like

  • starting at the appropriate place in the logic given your situation- maybe step 3 or 7....
  • moving back and forward through the logic as needs dictate
  • missing some steps if needed
  • starting anywhere, but going everywhere.

While you might need to understand the framework and know how to use any particular tool, a key success factor will also be to know what tool to use when- the hop, skip and jump approach.

If you want to know more about how to do this, talk to us about applying our Collaboration System.

The P.I.V. of Agreement

Do you know that feeling you get when tasked with trying to get a bunch of people to agree, who fundamentally see things differently and want different outcomes? You know that feeling when you are anticipating that this is going to be a fight, a talkfest, a waste of time?  It is a pretty uncomfortable place to be and I’ve seen clients in this position start to doubt their capability as managers.

Getting agreement among people who have diverse and strongly-held opinions is challenging, there is no doubt. But sometimes we make it more challenging than it needs to be by focussing on the opinions, rather than seeking to understand why we hold them.

Here is a simple model to illustrate. We call it the PIV triangle.

The two triangles represent two people, each with a very different and strongly held opinion about an issue they must work on together. Let’s call that opinion their Position, as in “this is the position I’m taking on this issue”.

We can see that there is a lot of space between the two positions at the top; a gulf between how person A and person B see this situation. In this case the discussion often becomes a battle of wills, an argument between opposing sides.

But let’s go deeper. We can see that the position each person holds is supported by their Interests, the things that they want. Person A holds position A because he feels it will deliver on his interests. Person B does the same with her position and interests. But too often neither person learns the interest of the other as they are too busy defending their own position and attacking the other.

And then let’s go deeper again. We can see that our interests are consistent with the fundamental Values we hold, our deep sense of the way the world is and should be. Often we struggle to articulate these values to ourselves, let alone share them with those we disagree with. Yet we can see that our values are often much more similar than we might imagine. We have much more in common than we expect.

And yet, because we are focussed on winning the argument about position we can be deaf and blind to the values of the other. No wonder agreement can be so difficult!

Collaboration requires us to recognise that a person’s strongly-expressed opinion is not the sum total of who they are. They hold that position because it seems to them at least to support their interests, which will be consistent with their deep values. And their deep values are likely to be not too different to mine. If we can find ways to have conversations about the things that really matter to us about the current problem, we are much more likely to find common ground, to stop arguing and start listening. Best of all, we are much more likely to emerge from the discussion with a brand new idea that better matches the situation, and which we all own.

So the next time you have to wrangle people where there is a lot of disagreement about the way forward, you may want to encourage everyone to do less talking about their idea and more exploring of others’ positions, interests and values. If you would like to know more about how to do that talk to us about our Collaboration System, which incorporates a number of tools for shifting from argument to agreement.

The Dilemma- a chip off the old bloke

As I ponder on the past and emerging dilemmas in 2020 - like the recent bushfires, the current coronavirus crisis, and key challenges like indigenous disadvantage, deteriorating mental health and risks from climate change, I'm often a bit disappointed and frustrated by the simplistic and solution focused ways in which we tend to respond.

It seems like "I know the answer, you just need to listen to me and implement what I say, and all will be OK".

Given the complex nature of such challenges, stepping back from the answer and taking some time to explore the question first is being increasingly recognised as a more useful approach, particularly given the history of failures applying the business as usual "solution" approach.

So Einstein's quote from long ago would still seem very relevant ie

"If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions".

However while thinking- and talking together - about getting on the same page is a crucial first step, the emerging dilemma can look a bit too big and complex, perhaps overwhelming, and it can be hard to know where and how to get started.

In our experience, finding a chunk of the problem to focus on can be really useful - something that feels feasible, relevant and achievable to start with.

A "right sizing" exercise can focus the efforts on to a piece of the problem, with greater confidence that it:

  • is substantive, but doable
  • warrants our time and resources
  • motives us and other stakeholders
  • potentially leads to a useful result
  • really matters to those involved

So perhaps we should ask Einstein to sacrifice a bit of that hour to right size the dilemma?