Breaking Down Silos with Team-Oriented Problem Solving

One of my favorite movie quotes is from Miracle, the movie about the 1980 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team: “When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates. And the name on the front is… a lot more important than the one on the back!”

I can’t think of a more passionate scene that expresses how alignment and accountability are crucial to the success of a team. And in that way, your business is no different than that hockey team.

Silo-based thinking (in which departments or locations operate within their own realms and don’t generally work together with other parts of a company) impacts organizations at every level. It’s a natural tendency, but it comes with a price—a lack of teamwork is a common problem that is difficult to resolve.

It’s easy to assume silos are working well together because “that’s how it’s always been done” and nobody is complaining. Yet in many cases, greater efficiency can be found by breaking the silos down. Companies that build a culture of collaboration enable their fullest range of resources to efficiently and effectively accomplish strategic goals. Too often, however, departments and project teams operate as distinct entities, pursuing their own objectives while under-utilizing the resources and capabilities that surround them.

There is a choice: think inside the silo, or think outside the box. Under silos, it’s hard for individuals to be innovative because the focus is on “doing the job” with little incentive or capacity to go beyond that. Instead, one of the most effective ways to create a high-performing culture of engagement and motivation is through team-oriented problem solving (TOPS).

Silos weren’t built overnight, so they won’t break down overnight either. But there are things you can start doing today to encourage a culture of alignment and accountability.

Create a unifying goal. Start by creating a goal that aligns everyone’s focus. It should be a single, time-sensitive rallying cry that motivates the team. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority—so it is important for this goal to be narrowly focused to what is most important to your organization as a whole. A goal that has potential for a big win will start to redirect silo-based thinking.

Support value. Move away from functional silos of departmental experts and move toward an organization built around the value it provides or the impact it makes. In order to do that, you have to determine who defines that value or impact. This may come as a shock to some, but value should not be defined from within. It’s defined by your customers, which I’ll touch on in a bit.

Evaluate incentives and accountability. What enables or prevents silo thinking is a combination of how people are measured and incentivized, how responsibilities and accountability are assigned, and how the role of leadership is understood. To improve how you keep score, leaders should stop measuring departments by short-term goals and instead focus on the impact your organization makes.

Focus on teamwork. Getting people to work as a team requires treating them as a team. When you measure and hold people accountable as individuals, they will act as individuals. Set clear roles and expectations for the team as a whole, with alignment of each individual’s action items to work toward the team’s unifying goal. Your team will achieve clarity around its highest and best use of collaborative resources.

Engage in proactive communication. When silos operate as if they don’t depend on each other, communication falls by the wayside. Communication is key for maintaining trust, so don’t say you’re too busy or that it only affects a few people. In the absence of information, people make up their own stories and the unknown always brings fear. Damage control will take you more time than developing a proactive communication plan in the first place. So open up those lines of communication! It goes a long way.

Standardize processes and expectations. Standardized processes allow everyone to know what is expected consistently and puts everyone on a level playing field for measuring performance and accountability. Create tools to make the processes and expectations clear to everyone, and don’t make processes so rigid that you can’t allow for innovation. You can standardize and still have flexibility.

The common saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” holds true here. The best way to break down silos is to get a cross-functional TOPS team in a room for discussion. Pick one pain point where you know you don’t have full alignment across your organization and strategically develop a team around that, representing different departments, locations and experience.

Don’t exclude from the team those who are late to adopt change, because they will raise a lot of questions and objectives during brainstorming; the more involved they are in the process, the more ownership they have in it. Learning about each other’s processes and goals and gaining alternative perspectives can reveal redundancy, lack of available resources, and other obstacles to efficiency and to the impact you’re making. Each member of the team should bring something unique.

TOPS meetings should be fast-paced, engaging events with tangible outcomes and focused around identifying priorities and setting a framework for implementing action items. Depending on the size of the problem you’re trying to solve, it may be beneficial to bring in a trained expert to facilitate discussion, bring another view to the table and keep you on track to meeting your goals.

You’ll also need to identify someone (whether it’s an outside facilitator or a team member) to take notes at your meetings. From there you can create clear action items with deadlines that will serve as a roadmap for project management of team initiatives.

Successful TOPS teams set ground rules up front.

  1. Stop, collaborate, and listen. Whether you’re a believer that silence is agreement or disagreement, it shouldn’t be allowed—period. When team members can speak freely, concerns that might otherwise go unnoticed are brought to the surface and can be addressed constructively. And when one team member is speaking, all other members should listen. And I mean truly listen; put away your electronics and be fully engaged, arrive to meetings on time and be present the entire scheduled time. You’ll be amazed at how quickly silos start to break down once team members hear another person’s perspective. Two-way collaborative communication is critical.
  2. Focus on the voice of the customer. The customer defines value. Think of the voice of the customer as the impact you’re making. Ask yourself, “Would a customer pay me to do this?” In addition to your obvious customers, you also have other outside customers (such as regulatory bodies) that require you to do certain things. Another very important customer to consider is your internal customer—anyone within your organization who is on the receiving end of your actions.

You want to treat all customers with the same level of respect when it comes to communication, service and work product. And when you make decisions, ask yourself whether doing something would be valuable to your customers, regulators or others inside your organization. If the answer is no, then consider not doing it.

  1. Challenge the status quo and think outside the box. “It’s always been done that way,” isn’t good enough. No ideas are bad ideas. Sometimes extreme out-of-the-box thinking ends up with a happy medium solution. All ideas should be heard and consensus gained after discussion.
  2. Get to the root cause of problems to find the best solutions. Ask “why, why, why, why, why?” My favorite TOPS team success story comes from a committee developed by The National Park Service to look into a problem with the Jefferson Memorial. Google this story (Jefferson Memorial root cause analysis) for details, but the bottom line is that a huge undertaking on the surface turned into a very simple solution that would have not even been considered had the question “why?” not been asked multiple times.
  3. Fail forward. Not all new ideas will work perfectly the first try, and that’s okay. If you move forward five steps but back two, you’re still ahead three steps. Failure doesn’t feel good, and people usually try to avoid not feeling good. But in order to learn from failure, you have to be open to taking the bad for the sake of the greater good. Ask yourself what went wrong; were there any cues or signals missed that could have changed the outcome? Then focus on developing a plan to continuously improve how you operate. Remember, today’s optimal solution is tomorrow’s obsolete solution.

Recently we toured the facilities of a client that had made a number of changes to their production process. While these measures had succeeded in reducing inefficiencies, the client couldn’t tell us how much money they were saving as a result.

It turns out that they focused solely on the production side when making these changes; other departments, like administration and accounting, were never brought in to the process. Without that cross-departmental input, they never created metrics that indicate how these changes affected the company’s profits and other areas of performance. All they could see was the time and effort saved on the production floor.

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Cross-functional team input helps you ensure that all aspects of improvement—especially your bottom line—are considered when deciding whether an initiative is successful.

So break down those silos! By using a TOPS approach to your operations and problem solving, you’ll get better buy-in across the board and results that make a greater impact on your company as a whole.

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