Break Down Silos to Build a Culture Focused in a Single Direction

BY James Whitman ON NOVEMBER 26, 2018

Have you ever worked in an environment where one part of the business didn’t talk to the other? Are your Product and Engineering teams pushing (or pulling!) in different directions? Does your Marketing team know what is happening in the Contact Centre? Does Logistics know what has been happening on the website recently? Does the HR team know what direction your Product is going in? Does your Sales Team know how your Operations function really works?

How well is everyone really working together?

If all your leadership team were somehow struck down with some weird leadership-seeking strain of virus what would happen in the office tomorrow, next week, or next month?

One of the best maxims about organisational culture is, I think, “Remove the managers and see what happens”. In the past, I’ve certainly worked in teams where the managers set everything out and I was just a worker ant not knowing how I contributed – but I’ve also worked in teams where we’ve become autonomous, self-empowered, and known what we were doing and why we were doing it. I know which kind of team I’d prefer to be in.

I could write a whole bemoaning article about why this happens – but I believe in always learning and moving forwards, so let’s focus instead on how we can get everyone to work together well.

Often the first question to ask is:

Do people really know what direction the business is pushing in?

What is the company’s mission statement or vision? Why do these statements actually exist?

You may recognise some of the following mission statements:

Booking.com: To empower people to experience the world

Google: Organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

eBay: To be the world’s favourite destination for discovering great value and unique selection

Everyone in the above organisations knows why they sit at their desks, sell their products, and what they work towards. These mission statements are the reason the organisation exists and they guide what everyone in the organisation tries to achieve. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time working with many people from Booking.com, and I can attest that it really gives them purpose.

But what if you don’t have a mission statement that acts as a rallying call?

If you don’t know why you’re doing what you do – keep asking why. Act like a toddler and ask why until people get sick of it. If your company doesn’t have a mission statement or a vision, then maybe it will prompt someone in the leadership team to start thinking about one when they can’t answer your questions.

But, influencing the top level of an organisation takes time, so what can you do to influence culture at a more granular, day-to-day level? Here are my suggestions:

Publish Meeting Minutes in an Open Environment

You can’t expect everyone to be in every meeting, but often what happens in meetings can affect everyone’s decisions, priorities, and direction. So find a way of publishing your meeting notes in an open environment so others can read them if they want. Obviously there are some exemptions – you wouldn’t publish your one-to-one notes – but you should work on the premise of “why shouldn’t I make this public to the organisation?”.

One of the most productive conversations I’ve ever had  came after someone read the minutes for a meeting I’d attended which was going to affect them for a long time. If I hadn’t published them publicly then that person may not have found out for months.

Hold Show and Tells to Break Down the Silos

Get the ball rolling on this and start sharing what you’re learning, building, and measuring. I’ve seen amazing Show and Tells where it wasn’t just Product and Engineering, but other departments like Logistics showing what they were working on. These sessions should be open invites where anyone can come and see. They should be broadcast too – so if others are in remote locations they can tune in from their desks.

Attendance shouldn’t be mandatory – allow people to come and go as they please. I promise you that people will be interested to see what is going on in the organisation.

Figure out how to Communicate Across Functions

Do you sit five metres away from someone and only communicate via email because they are in another department? Stop doing that. Go and build a relationship. If it absolutely needs to be written down, go and have the face-to-face conversation first and drop them an email with a summary just so it is recorded.

The challenge of being located in another city, continent, or time zone is a difficult one to bridge, but you shouldn’t rely purely on email to communicate. Use video calls to connect with others and get to know their faces and watch their body language when they communicate. It will help you to understand what they’re really saying. There are quite a few free browser-based video conference tools for this and pretty much everyone has a webcam on their laptop and a set of headphones at their desk. The conversation when a face is involved will be much more effective over video than over email, IM, or phone.

Pair up on Recruitment

If you’re hiring then it’s likely that the person needs to work across multiple organisation functions. At the very least you should pair up your Product and Engineering recruitment so that you’re present in each other’s interviews. If you’re hiring for a Product Owner who will have to work closely with the sales team then get one of them to sit in on the interview and get their opinion on the person.

Structure Objectives Around Company Outcomes and not Individual Ones

If you’re in a management or leadership position then set your objectives for your team(s) based on company outcomes and not on what makes you personally look best. There’s no point building an empire if it’s on a sinking island.

If you don’t have management or leadership responsibilities then work with your managers/leaders to set your own objectives based on how you help the company achieve its aspirations.

So where can this go wrong?

Information Overload

Don’t be a function of making information overload any worse. You should think about where you’re putting information and structure it in such a way that anyone can access and read it. Think of the information you distribute as putting it into a filing cabinet. If you’re the only one who knows the cabinet’s sorting and filing methods, then you’re the only one who will find its contents useful.

By following these steps you’ll hopefully start to see some organisation change in how the functions collectively work together. It should start to break down the mental (and sometimes physical) walls that people put up around their teams or departments, and it will mean that collectively you can achieve great things for your organisation.

James Whitman

About

James Whitman

James has been working in the digital industry since 2011 and has worked in eCommerce, Travel and is currently working in Fin-Tech as a Senior Product Owner for an Investment Brokerage in the UK. He's worked on Web, Software, Apps and has created new products, optimised some existing ones and retired a few too. He loves making Products that make a difference and add moments of delight to the world and he is always interested in talking to others in our space. With a strong belief in making the world better through Tech, he dedicates his free time in mentoring and contributing back to the digital community.