Breaking Down Silos

The metaphorical silos in a company can be seen as representing boundaries put up by an organisation to keep a group of people focused on accomplishing their goals, and preventing interference with progress by outsiders, so there’s a positive purpose.

But we talk about breaking down silos because when silos are rigidly maintained within a company it creates problems. Silos form in large companies to support the hierarchical structure of the company. It rests on an old model of thinking about work; that managers know what needs to be done and are responsible for directing all those under their responsibility to complete that work.

For me silos are are an outcome of an overly hierarchical company culture, one where people are unwilling to share knowledge, solve problems together or co-operate in any way.  The business directory defines silo mentality as;

a mindset present when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality will reduce efficiency in the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture.

Visible signs that your organisation is in silos;

  • people talk about “us” and “them” meaning different departments within your company
  • you need agreement from management of two departments to get co-operation from another department
  • you need permission from a manager to approach someone in another department
  • departments in your company store their information online in team sites or shared drives that are only accessible for department members
  • you do have lunch with colleagues, but only ever from your own department
  • your personnel directory is searchable by name, or department, but not by expertise
  • when you look for specialist expertise, for example a Spanish-speaking tax expert with experience in Latin America, you start by emailing someone who speaks Spanish

Yes there is a need to focus on the work, and that may mean that a project team shuts itself off from the organisation in some way. Yes in regulated industries there may be a need to put boundaries between certain parts of the organisation; the term used for this in banking in Chinese walls. In agencies temporary boundaries are often put in place around a project to prevent sharing of client information.

In general I wouldn’t consider anything temporary as a silo; just as you don’t move a grain silo easily, silos within companies take time to be established. I agree that there are regulatory boundaries to be considered, and while I’m probably guilty of understating those in my enthusiasm for improving knowledge sharing across a company, I’m certainly not thinking of them when I call for us to “break down the silos”.

I watched a TED video that talked about what might be one of the greatest silo breakdowns ever, and it comes from the US military. General Stanley McChrystal states;

The fact that I know something has zero value if I’m not the person who can actually make something better because of it.

He explains that it’s almost impossible to know who is the best person to use each piece of information, and that the army therefore moved from a “tell only who needs to know” to “we need to tell, and tell them as quickly as we can“.

It’s this philosophical shift I am referring to when I talk about breaking down the silos.

In some companies the need is urgent, and in those cases the phrase needs to be upgraded to “tearing down the silos”.

Moving the Needle

I was reading an article on Wal-Mart’s e-commerce business recently and I came across the term “to move the needle”. Since I spend more time sewing on buttons than I do driving cars at the moment the first mental picture I had was troubling. Turns out not that needle.

The expression refers to moving the needle on some instrument of measurement such as a car speedometer, possibly more specifically the analogue Vu meter used in audio recording. In a more abstract form asking whether something “moved the needle” is just asking whether there was a noticeable improvement in the results.

In the Wal-Mart article they were referring to the e-commerce side of sales, which at 0.3% of US sales (by value) is barely impacting the billions in total sales. So although sales are at over $200 million it’s not yet moving the needle. I may not be the only one unfamiliar with the term, the headline reads “Wal-Mart’s e-commerce business: Can it move the needle, be material?” I’m pretty sure those last two words have been added since I first saw the article.

In another take on moving the needle, Lisa Earle McLeod applies the term to personal changes, and shows how making small, consistent changes is significant. She says “You don’t accomplish big things overnight; you move the needle every day.” Exactly.

What are you doing to move the needle today?

Image; Pixabay

Win-Win Situation

We’re often encouraged to look for the “win-win” outcome, or a situation will be described as “win-win”. Generally it’s used to point teams to look for outcomes where all parties will benefit.

It’s common parlance now but it comes from game theory, specifically from “non-zero-sum” theory. That is a game some outcomes have a total greater or less than zero, best illustrated by the prisoners dilemma.

Imagine that two prisoners can either betray the other or remain silent with the following potential outcomes.

Rationally prisoners will betray, since that gives them the best outcome when they don’t know how the other will behave. Which gives you an indication of how hard it is to get to a win-win situation between two parties with competing interests.

The above table becomes abstracted and generalised to the following;

In addition the win-win should be a new solution that delivers positive outcomes to both parties, in practice a compromise can be called a win-win when it delivers less to each party and is in fact a lose-lose, but with both parties losing less than in a dual defect situation. Given that there is a rational advantage in defecting, and often in defecting early, it can take tricky negotiation to get both parties to co-operate.

Image: Adventure via Pixabay  |  CC0

Hotwash

This came up on a powerpoint slide of the day’s agenda “4 – 5 pm Hotwash”.

Evidently it means immediate review, according to Word Detective it comes from the US Army where it describes the debrief that occurs immediately after a mission or patrol, possibly from the literal talking while showering, more likely from the practice soldiers have of dousing their weapons in hot water after an exercise.

I’d never seen it before, and nor had any other colleagues in the room. So I’ve asked people what it makes them think of, most people said either laundry or hot tubs (which might say more about them than the subject). But the most descriptive was “hotwash sounds like a painful spa treatment involving large muscular women twisting your body in weird ways”.

In this case it was referring to the last hour of an assessment day, when all teams will discuss their assessments and we’ll check any major inconsistencies.

If I’d been writing the agenda I would have put “4 – 5 pm Review Assessments”, but then, I’m not a management consultant.

Image: Weekly Laundry | Stefan | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Cyberslacking

Perfect subject for a Friday!

Cyberslacking refers to the use of a company’s computer and internet connection for personal activities when one should be doing work.

It’s not the occasional email, or lunchtime Facebook status check that’s deserves the name, it’s the excessive use of work time to play on the internet. Those times when you look up one little thing and 30 minutes later you’re in an internet black hole arguing, or buying another light sabre or watching cat videos. And of course mobile phones make it even easier.

It’s not a new thing, as early as 2000 reports flagged the cost of lost productivity as more than 50 billion USD in the US. The same report notes that companies were already taking action, putting in place specific internet use policies and firing the greatest violators – such as employees spending as much as 8 hours a day on gambling sites. More recent estimates put the costs to a business at 35 million per year for a company of just 1000 people, if each employee cyberslacked for an hour a day.

Some companies see this as a loss of productivity, effectively money down the drain and seek to monitor or to limit access to all non-work internet sites for all employees.

Employees find their own strategies; blocking access on work machines means they’ll use their own devices, trying to watch over their shoulder leads to cheeky solutions like the “look busy” button on Last Minute’s Australian site (it used to be on more of their sites, but apparently only the Australians kept their sense of humour).

There is some research showing that people who take internet breaks at work are more productive. I’m inclined to agree,  if people are busy with meaningful work and producing great results, brief internet breaks are not going to cause a dramatic drop in productivity. In fact if managers focus on results the fear of productivity loss goes away.

This holds true even in extreme cases; the guy playing on online gambling sites all day is unlikely to produce the expected quality of work – addressing that issue early could have a better outcome for both the company and the employee.

This focus on results is one of the key principles of the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), in fact in a ROWE the time spent on the job becomes irrelevant, employees are trusted to use their judgement to plan their workdays. In my view it’s a much healthier than putting increasing layers of monitoring on employee’s use of internet.

I guess I’m in favour of mild cyberslacking.

The Marshmallow Test

The Marshmallow Test is series of experiments on delaying gratification in children. Researchers tested whether children could delay eating a treat when told that delay would mean an extra treat.

Researchers then followed the children’s development and found that those who had been able to delay gratification for a greater reward had been more successful by various life measures including academic achievements.

Would I have passed the marshmallow test? Easily, I’ve never liked marshmallow. I’d do less well if the temptation involved chocolate, even now.

Can the “Marshmallow Test”  be applied to companies?

There is pressure within companies to meet monthly sales targets, project deadlines, quarterly results – multiple drivers of short-term performance requirements. A company’s strategy should provide a longer arc but the relentless pace of change compresses even this.

Are there companies out there that refuse short term revenue or profit to build long term gain?

Don Pepper identified 3 “small” examples in a Linkedin Post which got me thinking about specific incidents where I’d deferred instant result for a better result in the future.

I came up with three;

  • delayed a high impact project, that had some urgency, until I could get a knowledgeable project manager in place. A good decision.
  • rolled a mobile deployment of an intranet tool into a larger project, thinking that it would be easier to solve the significant security challenges once and the outcome would be a better user experience. A bad decision, two years later it still wasn’t done.
  • turned down an excellent candidate, because I didn’t think it was the right role for him – and hired him a year later for the right role. A difficult, but good decision.

In all cases I feared missing out on an opportunity when I made the decision, in two cases it was a good decision, in one perhaps not. I try not to give into the “fear of missing out” factor, and one way to do that is to imagine what I will think in six months if I say yes, vs saying no. You can also take time to imagine what it will take to deliver if you say yes now – in the first example I had to defend a delay, but had I taken on the project I had no resources for it’s unlikely the project would have been delivered any earlier or any better.

Have you deferred short term benefit for long term gain? If so, what was the eventual outcome?

Astroturfing

astro turfingIf you’ve ever seen a book on Amazon with a lot of vaguely positive reviews, or a hotel review on trip advisor with glowing reviews that don’t really match the photos, or a new restaurant with a suspiciously high number of reviews in its first week after opening, you may have stumbled across a case of astroturfing.

Astroturf is that fake grass seen in public sports parks, and astroturfing is, according to the Guardian;

the attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists. Multiple online identities and fake pressure groups are used to mislead the public into believing that the position of the astroturfer is the commonly held view.

We know that people trust reviews and recommendations from family and friends, but we’ll also trust consumer reviews – even when we don’t know the reviewer – ahead of any form of company communication or advertising. So it’s not surprising that some companies and organisations try to co-opt the review process for their own purposes.

It might not seem to matter much, but reviews, recommendations and star rankings affect sales, Astroturfing puts that at risk. This has become such an issue for the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, that they’re now building a technical solution to stop fake reviews.

There’s a more important potential issue at stake when this scales up, when Astroturfing is used by special interest groups it starts to influence public opinion, discredit dissenting voices,  and influence public policy as Sharyl Attkisson explains in this TEDx talk.

The signs she suggests to watch out for;

  • use of inflammatory language, for example;  crank quack nutty pseudo conspiracy
  • claiming to debug myths that aren’t myths
  • attacking the people and organisations surrounding an issue rather than addressing the facts

I’d add blocking or deleting comments from dissenters in online discussions.

As the video makes clear this is a tactic used by marketers and lobbyists, and it’s one we, as consumers need to be aware of as we read reviews and follow online discussions. And online retailers need to follow Amazon’s example and build engines to reduce the impact of astroturfers.