Why We Don’t Collaborate

Everyone says they love collaboration.

Our open offices are designed to encourage collaboration.

We recruit for people who are collaborative in nature.

The digital tools we use are aimed at fostering greater collaboration.

We promote the benefits of collaboration , or even co-creation, with our customers and service users.

Collaboration has replaced innovation as the buzzword of the moment.

In truth though, our actual behaviors show we don’t like collaborating.

We often don’t have the time that is required to work through differing perspectives. We have difficulty in working with others who hold alternative opinions. And – let’s face it – many of us have a need to be right and get our own way.

Despite the collaboration rhetoric – most of us prefer existing and working in silos.

So why is that?

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.

Despite all that though – the silo actually has a great deal going for it. Within a silo it is much easier to define and implement an initiative or outcome.

Basically, silo working means you can ‘Get Shit Done Quickly’. Without interference.

And almost all our organisational KPIs reward GSDQ activity rather than the purposeful thinking and patience that collaboration requires.

Additionally the exponential growth in the number of managers (There are five million managers in the UK today, 10 times as many as there were 100 years ago)  has boosted opportunities for silo thinking at the expense of collaboration.

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

Truth is – most of us simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills.

It’s highly unlikely you were taught about collaborative problem solving at school. Many of us were educated to find answers through solitary work.

It wasn’t until just two years ago that it was even measured, with a report outlining the difference in the collaborative ability of pupils across 52 countries.

As the report notes, students typically learn individually, and at the end of the school year, their individual achievements are certified. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the less it needs lone problem solvers and the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators.

Infographic CPS-Full-Ranking 70

Interestingly it found that on average across OECD countries, girls are 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem solving.

Arguably more managers means less collaboration. And more male managers could make it worse still.

Rewiring Organisations For Collaboration

So we’ve established: collaboration isn’t easy, it takes a long time to do right and it doesn’t come naturally to most people.

At Bromford we’ve been redesigning the organisation to move away from silos and towards collaboration. Our previous desire for operational efficiency at all costs had adversely affected interoperability between teams.

The answer was to build a ‘shared consciousness’ through the creation of a network of 33 linked service area’s and teams.

A multidisciplinary ‘design team’ acts as a conduit for all change across these areas. This recognises that today innovation is rarely the product of individuals working in isolation, rather – it is an outcome of how we mobilise, share and integrate knowledge.

L+Q Bromford Lab (2)

I’ll be the first to say that working in this way is hugely challenging. I have a lot less autonomy than I did five years ago. If you’re into ego and power I’d suggest you’d find this an uncomfortable place to be.

Saying you’re a collaborative organisation isn’t true and helps no-one. True collaboration won’t happen unless you make it happen.

Creating an atmosphere where people can respectfully disagree, where all voices are heard and leaders bring out the best in everyone takes discipline and skill. 

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.

If we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

We need less talk of it, and a lot more doing.

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
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