Why We Love Silo Working And What To Do About It

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In 1988 Phil. S. Ensor coined the term the functional silo system.  His contention was that narrow, specialised teams and jobs were easy to manage but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

  • We become focused on addressing organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms.
  • Social chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context. Indeed – cross organisational problem solving can break down.
  • And as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs – the organisation slowly becomes reactive.

Nearly 30 years later, silo working is one of our most enduring management buzzwords.

They’ve gone nowhere – so are silos really such a problem?

Truth is, we love them.  They give us a lot of security and belonging.

Silos don’t just exist at team level.  Our sectors organise themselves into siloed echo chambers – each with their own system of professional bodies, conferences and award ceremonies.

You may have your own silo at a personal level. Most of our online social networks – particularly professional social networks – conform to the functional silo system. We follow and connect with people just like us.

You see, the much maligned silo actually has a great deal going for it.

untitled-presentation-3Silos are great for teamwork, but a barrier to external collaboration. And in a networked era – we need to adopt very different strategies.

I’m currently doing some work with David Anderton and the team at Bromford to redraw the relationship between 30 different service areas. It’s a fascinating exercise as you get to work with colleagues to draw a fantasy version of your organisation and then make it happen.

The lesson I’m learning is that our desire for operational efficiency has adversely affected interoperability between teams.

That’s not a bad thing per se – Bromford has a Moody’s AA3 rating and a core operating margin of 43%. Efficiency has a definite benefit! However we don’t want to rest on our laurels as we move to the dizzying challenges of the future.

In the book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal describes taking command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq. He quickly realised that conventional tactics were failing. Although the allied forces had a huge advantage in numbers, technology and training – they were no match for the adaptable and networked nature of Al-Qaeda.

After watching Al-Qaeda confound the army and win battles, McChrystal saw that the problem wasn’t one of capability, but interoperability.

Each time valuable intelligence was gathered it tooks weeks for the data to be distributed. Also – the information flowed through silos. Information was sent up the chain of command, where it was passed on to other teams who would then develop strategies for the frontline.

The individual teams were all experts , armed and trained beyond the capabilities of their foe.

They were meeting all their individual objectives.

Yet the shared mission—defeating Al Qaeda—was being lost.

The answer was to build a “shared consciousness,” through the creation of a network of teams.  This encouraged agile interaction, embedding the data intelligence within localised units and conducting daily status calls that included all of the stakeholders.

As McChrystal has said, “it takes a network to defeat a network”.

The focus on interoperability did reduce the efficiency of individual teams but the overall mission was accomplished. 

Our job right now is exactly that – to reduce the efficiency of silos, whilst boosting the interactive capacity of small networked teams.

In the digital age we can no longer afford to think in conventional terms of efficiency.

We must optimise our silos to work together – as networks in the context of a fully understood mission.

Learning faster than the rest, and acting accordingly, is a new competitive advantage.

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Bromford Design Principle Eight – Joined Up

Embracing Challenge to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture

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Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any antibodies. Add something new and it can get rejected.

As Chris Bolton has written organisations can have immune systems and idea antibodies. As Chris says – It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.

The stronger your culture – the more resistant it can be to change.

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to disrupt your culture.

I’m writing this on the way to talk to a group of Non Executive Board Members alongside Helen Bevan – on the subject of embracing challenge to build a stronger innovation culture.

We need a system upgrade for sure.

What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?

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At Bromford we’ve learned to distinguish between wicked problems which might require widespread organisational change – and the smaller changes and innovations we can introduce from the edges.

Scalable innovation in our world is often about joining the dots & making optimal investments. Marginal gains rather than big bang programmes. This involves less reporting and more doing. Discreet tests and pilots that explore a new world without fully committing to it.

However – larger scale innovation dies or thrives from the top. Accordingly the role of Boards in understanding the process of transformation, and the innovation culture it requires to thrive, cannot be underplayed.

nhf-boards-paul-taylor-2Boards themselves, not just executives, need to reflect on whether innovation receives sufficient attention during meetings, and also consider what role they should play in supporting transformative efforts. Supporting the attitudes and mindset from which effective innovation is born is a responsibility of all leaders.

Establishing a governance that supports disruption

If the culture is risk averse you have a problem as innovation always entails risk. A culture of innovation must accept and even encourage considered risk-taking – including failure.

Risk-aversion of corporate governance structures has the potential to quash innovation.

The organisation of the future will be one that differentiates their customer experience from the competition. Those who rip the rulebook apart, rather than slavishly follow the herd,  will be rewarded.

Giving people permission to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of innovation.

There’s an inherent tension here – and for good reason. Permissions need to be managed or chaos reigns.  The trick is finding the balance – and creating an innovation process that also practices good risk management.

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The first step to change is recognising there is  often a cognitive bias against new introductions.

Most Change Fails because the case for change has not been made strongly enough and communicated well enough.  If it’s only leaders and managers who understand why the change is important it’s doomed.

Our track record of introducing change programmes is abysmal. And yet we now need to rewire our organisations for disruption.

What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?

It’s less a time limited programme and more a way of life.

It’s a culture where everyone is actively questioning the status quo and is rewarded for it.

It’s a culture that constantly asks: “How can we do this better?” or “What would we do if we started again?”.

It’s a culture that can sustain as much rapid change as possible without falling apart.

Why Collaboration Does Not Equal Innovation

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Photo credit: Jonatan Pie

Transformation can’t happen without discovery and discovery can’t happen without experimentation.

It’s a new year and at Bromford we are planning a reboot of our approach to innovation (actually we are planning a reboot of everything).

My emerging thoughts are we need less talk of accelerated fast fail innovation and more a systemic and systematic approach to experiments.

Why?

Because innovation is almost never a single event.

As Greg Satell has written it can take decades for new solutions to be adopted widely. People cling to old models out of habit and convenience. Systemwide change doesn’t come easy.

The idea of putting a few people together in a room and expecting them to have some eureka moment about complex problems is , at best, naive.

Corporate away days, brainstorming, hackathons, conferences, unconferences,  all promote the myth that bringing a few random people together solves problems.

It’s good to talk for sure – but let’s stop conflating collaboration with innovation.

Most hacks and conferences do not solve problems – and certainly not big problems. Problems are there for a reason. People are working to solve these problems constantly, spending much more energy and resources than a single group of people ever can.

As part of the programme I’m working on at the moment potential solutions often only emerge weeks, or even months, after the initial creative session.

The reality is that innovation is an ongoing process. A process that requires problem definition, research, creativity and testing. Lots and lots of testing.

Currently only a small proportion of organisations in the social sector incorporate this process alongside the introduction of a wide range of new knowledge, new process and new technology.

Organisations are jumping to the latter. However technology cannot magically mend broken systems or solve intractable problems.

The real opportunity in 2017 is combining experiments with larger scale transformation.

I’m no longer interested in the cheerleading of innovation and transformation as an end in itself. My interest lies in the practical examples of learning and exploration that organisations are able to evidence.

Smart organisations will:

  • Build a portfolio of many different types of experiments from new customer offerings to new business models.
  • View small experiments as a natural constraint to bloated and expensive ‘projects’.
  • Conduct multiple experiments at the same time and be able to evidence their impact and share the learning.
  • Use the governance, scale and resources of transformation programmes to ensure the adoption of proven experiments.

Our job is to set the stage and create the right environment for those experiments.

We need a safe space for exploration. We need permission to cross organisational silos and assemble diverse co-creators. We need to move out of our ivory towers and shift innovation as close as we can to the colleagues and customers who know the jobs that need doing.

Organisational change doesn’t come easily.

A joined-up process of collaboration, research, experimentation and transformation would certainly make it a lot faster.

Most Services Launched This Year Will Fail – Here’s Why

How To Fast Track Innovation

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If you speak at conferences about innovation you’ll almost always encounter some frustrated people.

They approach you at the end, or contact you a few days later. They often have one thing in common.

They, and others like them , have ideas that are being shut down because they don’t fit the system.

They tend not to be the loud ones, the self styled boat rockers and rebels at work, but just people who are quietly trying to make a difference.

They see a refusal to identify, create, embrace, explore, develop or adopt new ideas. They see missed opportunities for new products, better processes or different ways of doing business.

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This week we spoke at an event at Alder Hey Innovation Hub on the subject of fast tracked innovation.

  • The NHS is 68 years old.
  • Bromford is 53.

That means we have at least two things in common.

  1. We’re successful. Our vision and purpose has remained relevant across decades.
  2. We’re in danger. The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today.  We shouldn’t really still be here.

If you’ve been around that long you’re going to have a huge amount of organisational wisdom. You’ve become very good at what you do.

However – older companies are really bad at innovation because they’re designed to be bad at innovation.

Older companies are designed to execute on delivery — not engage in discovery.

And this is where all those frustrated people come from. They are explorers locked in a system focused on repetition.

Smart organisations know that innovation has to happen by design. They know that you have to build non-linear processes that encourage purposeful deviation.

It’s project unmanagement.

Project management as in methodologies like PRINCE2 can be anti-innovation. It’s about defined steps to make something logical and organised. PRINCE actually stands for PRojects IN Controlled Environments.

Control.

Let’s be clear – I’m not dismissing the importance of controlled projects. However my experience of talking to a lot of frustrated people is that organisations are confusing control and exploration.

As I heard this week – “I just keep getting told to take my idea to the project team, but they don’t seem to get it”.

No. They wouldn’t get it.

NEVER take an idea to a project management team unless you want it come back with a risk log, a contingency plan and a Gantt chart.

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As this diagram from Tom Hartland shows – there’s a whole fuzzy front end to deal with first.

The conundrum we face is that the very processes that drive toward a profitable, efficient operation tend to get in the way of developing innovations that can actually transform the business.

Until organisations invest in a test and learn framework to accompany their efficiency models they are doomed to disappoint a lot of employees and see ideas go nowhere.

Creating a safe place for intrapreneurs to test ideas and gain supporting evidence so they can justify requesting funds is now necessary whatever the size of your company.

What’s the ROI?

A better question to ask is how you measure the return for an idea that does not yet exist.


The latest Lab slide deck is below. Thanks to Tom for the awesome illustrations.

Using Weak Signals To Determine Your Future Organisation

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“Weak signals consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, markets, the economy, consumer tastes and behaviour, and demographics.  Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear” – Vijay Govindarajan.

Luckily for us the future doesn’t arrive in an instant – but unfolds seconds at a time.

Despite our organisational 2025 strategies, our five year forward views, it’s impossible to predict what our world looks like in the years ahead.

We are making, as Jason Fried has said, business guesses rather than business plans.

Launching a service or developing a new product against this ever shifting background is fraught with difficulty. What’s good for 2016 could be surplus to requirements a year later.

Today all our new services must be iterative and capable of scaling for mergers, growth and indeed for retraction and redundancy.  Designing for obsolescence is more important than ever. 

At Bromford Lab we’ve worked with our Insight team to give a tentative green light to a new service – and I think there are some lessons to learn. Tom Hartland gives an overview of our thinking here with an excellent slide deck showing the design process.

The concept is simple. Switch from being a reactive service (waiting for basic repairs requests) – and move to offering proactive coaching so people can do things for themselves. It’s aiming to tackle exactly the same things as many of our public services are: reducing demand by focusing on prevention rather than cure.

Lesson One: The test has been beset by implementation problems. 

As it should be. 

If you are launching anything new against the background of what could be legacy services and systems – it should be plagued by problems.

Expect lots of tiny failures. The worst thing you can do is to give up. Unfortunately many of our organisations, and certainly most of the media, do not think like this.  This is part of the re-education journey we need to take people on.

Lesson Two: The test hasn’t delivered tangible business benefits. Yet. 

So why are we recommending that it proceeds to pilot?

The answer to that is a mix of art and science. We have some evidence of potential success but we need a more detailed and longer term evaluation.

However not all insight can be gained through evaluation alone – but by picking up what futurists term ‘weak signals’.

Generally organisations are poor at picking up these signals. Arguably the fact that we are still talking about digital transformation demonstrates that the weak signals from the 1990’s onwards were largely unheard.

There are a number of signals that we are picking up at Bromford that – if correct- means our concept could have a very positive future. With time there’s a possibility of substantial financial returns – alongside fulfilling our strategic objective of growing customer skills and aspirations.

Here are a few of the things that we do, and don’t know about the future:

  • We have an ageing population with more people living on their own. We don’t know if this will have a positive or detrimental effect on future demand.
  • We know that driverless cars will soon be on the roads – drastically reducing transportation costs to get parts to our residents homes. We don’t know the speed of adoption.
  • We know the maker community – people using 3D printing and other self manufacture tools – is growing. We don’t know whether this will ever move beyond a niche and into the mainstream.
  • We know artificial intelligence – think Siri and Amazon Alexa – is rapidly advancing. We don’t know whether AI advice and coaching delivered through technology or a robot will ever be a good enough alternative to physical delivery.
  • We know housing associations are unlikely to be flooded with lots of public money in the future. We don’t know what future welfare reforms look like.

Putting all of these things together alongside the evidence we do have is persuasive enough to take the test to a next level.

None of us can predict the future – but we can attempt to second guess it. And the best way to do that is by low-cost experiments to test the unknowns, before gambling any big money.

Ultimately our organisations will succeed by exploring these weak signals – abandoning them as they fade or focussing investment when they get stronger.

The only choice is whether to be an active participant in what the future looks like or just let it relentlessly unfold around you.