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Team in a meeting around computers

Busting silos

John Bull
October 13, 2017

Organisations are at their creative best when they get people with very different areas of expertise to combine their talents. In this article we look at the cost of ‘silo working’ and explore why breaking down these silos can be so hard - highlighting how our efforts to maximise performance in each function can actually make things worse. Then we share four practical actions you can take to improve collaboration immediately.

Building a team of teams

For the first two years of the war against Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgents had a distinct advantage over the much better trained and equipped Allied forces. Initially this confounded the Allies, who knew they were superior in every function required to wage war - including intelligence, air force, special forces, infantry, and PR work with local communities. The problem was that each of these functions operated as a distinct silo, with scant respect for, or knowledge about, the other functions.

Al Qaeda had been built on a very different approach to leadership – combining a simple common purpose, with highly decentralised decision making, and instant communication between front line people. They were able to make rapid decisions as small cross functional teams.

General Stanley McChrystal, who was Commander of the Allied forces in Iraq, realised that while functional excellence gives us potential to perform, the quality of interactions between these functions is every bit as important. Over the next two years he turned performance around by focusing much of his energy on breaking down the silos and creating what he called a ‘team of teams’.

Every successful organisation recognises the importance of effective teamwork on performance. It’s why we spend a lot of time working together in cross functional teams and it’s what drives the success of organisations like Pixar and Apple.

However, genuine high performing behaviour across separate functions is rare – mainly due to a number of human factors that pull against this type of collaboration. By understanding and overcoming these factors we can enjoy a huge competitive advantage which is very hard to replicate.

Four human factors that work against teamwork, and how to push through them:

1.    We are hard wired to be tribal – to divide our world into them and us.

This instinct is useful in encouraging us to collaborate with people we consider to be part of our tribe. The problem is that most people view their function or work unit as their tribe rather than the wider organisation as a whole. This means we are generally less open to ideas from other functions and not naturally concerned with their goals.

The key is to get people to identify with the wider organisation as their tribe and the fastest way to achieve this is to unite people behind a common purpose.

Pixar’s continued dominance of animation is built on their ability to combine the work of computer technology experts with the artistry of animators. They achieve this by uniting every individual behind a shared purpose of bringing stories to life. This shared sense of purpose goes way beyond the words, and this level of collaboration doesn't just happen. Ed Catmul, their MD, sees his continued efforts to create the right conditions for teamwork as the most important aspect of his role.

2.    We are conditioned to be polite as a way of fitting in.

From an evolutionary point of view, we are conditioned to view fitting in and being accepted within a team as more important than ensuring that the team gains the full benefits of our experience. This is particularly true when we are new to a team or when the team is first forming.

We are also conditioned to show deference to the leader of the team and to people we see as having more experience than us in a particular area of expertise.

Both of these natural tendencies nudge teams towards politeness and hinder individuals from bringing their full leadership potential to the team.

Once you have everyone genuinely engaged behind a shared sense of purpose, your next goal as team leader should be to focus on the quality of interaction between people. Explain to the team your wish to create a culture of candour and ‘psychological safety’- where people feel encouraged to voice their views and where people listen to each other.

Challenging a team to become more candid in their conversations, while maintaining respect for each other, is one of the fastest ways to improve the value and productivity of meetings.

3. Personality determines contribution.

Another block to getting the best out of everyone in the team is the tendency for personality to influence who contributes the most – particularly in a team of 6 or more.

The two dimensions of personality that most determine contribution are extroversion and ‘strength of will’. Neither of these have anything to do with who has the best insights.

High performing teams tend to have a fairly even contribution from each member – not in every conversation but over time.

Share the importance of equal contribution and challenge people to reflect on and take responsibility for their own contribution.

4. Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency we all have to look for information that confirms our current views and to filter out potentially useful insights that don’t fit with our preconceived ideas. This affects the quality of thinking in teams in two ways:

  • We tend to enter into conversations we have strong feelings about, with a view to getting our point across, rather than focusing on the potential to expand our perspective. This gets in the way of open dialogue.
  • It also explains how teams fall very quickly into ‘group think’ - because the first line of thinking to emerge has a disproportionate influence on what the group thinks.

The lesson here for us as team leaders is the importance of developing skills and behaviours in the team around open dialogue, encouraging people to explore each others’ thinking and being open to challenge.

Improving the performance of your team

If you are interested in exploring how we might be able to help you develop a culture of high performance in your team or teams, email John Bull - john.bull@managementfutures.co.uk

Alternatively, if you would like to benchmark the culture in your team against seven key conditions for high performance, send a request to highperformance@managementfutures.co.uk

We will send you a link to an online survey which you can complete yourself or share with the whole team. This is an excellent first step in opening up an honest conversation within the team around how you can improve your collective performance.

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