Break down silos and build an integrated organisation: six interventions for leaders and managers
To be successful, we need our teams to work across our organisation: collaborating for innovation, communicating for efficiency and understanding different perspectives and roles.
Before the pandemic, I was regularly being asked by clients to come up with ways to “break silo thinking”.
One of the issues of ever-larger and more complex organisations is that people lose sight of the big picture and focus on their own team or departmental goals. This leads to narrow thinking and competitive behaviour that is not just uncollaborative, but which can actually hinder the overall organisational goal.
And in universities this is impacted by the sheer variety of roles and responsibilities – from teaching through to infrastructure, from student recruitment to learning and teaching, from academic research and industrial partnerships to running a hospital. Add to that multi-location or global campuses, online-only students or vertical integration with further education colleges and academies. Few organisations have such a complex and varied range of stakeholders, roles, responsibilities and purposes than a modern university.
But the situation post-pandemic is even worse. The disruption of the pandemic years and the increase in hybrid working increased separation and isolation. Business leaders are regularly expressing concern that home working and the loss of serendipitous conversations impedes innovation and collaboration.
So what can a leader do to break the boundaries between teams and departments?
I recommend focusing on practical ideas. While not all of these will be applicable to your situation, it is worth engaging with the idea, testing it and seeing if you can implement, adapt or learn from it.
1. Promote spontaneous conversations online
There are several ways you can create a virtual water-cooler, where serendipity can occur. Numerous apps and portals will randomly pair up people for a breaktime chat. One organisation I know of leaves a social video conference call running: anyone can login and join the group chat – another schedules five minutes social chat before starting any meeting, to give people time to talk.
2. Create communities of practice
With a structure of myriad schools and departments, and nowadays more complex group arrangements, there is a likelihood that are people working on similar roles but in different settings within the same university.
At the University of London I helped to break down internal barriers and maximise performance by arranging communities of practice for project managers across the member colleges. These were self-facilitated quarterly opportunities to share information and best practice, collaborate and provide peer support. We also ran them for marketing and communication specialists who were similarly distributed.
Within universities there is an extra, unique, opportunity. In business, management and social sciences schools, there are academic staff with cutting-edge knowledge and insights into the issues faced by professional colleagues. Could a community of practice help bring together these different viewpoints and ideas?
3. Devise collaborative mini-projects
Work with other team leaders to agree short, useful mini-projects that require your teams to collaborate. One tool I recommend is touchpoint mapping. Get teams to work together to review their interactions, and look for any improvements. They’ll understand why George in Finance isn’t “just being difficult”, gain another perspective on their team, and build relationships that they can rely on in the future.
It’s also possible to have projects across the academic-professional divide: in a recent SDF learning events we heard about a highly effective group coaching collaboration between academics and OD colleagues on a career development programme.
4. Enable communication with ease
How do you communicate with other teams? Many organisations have generic LearningAndDevelopment@xxx emails addresses so people know who to reach out to, and can do this from wherever they are. Others use the intranet to post videos or explainers about exactly what teams do, how best to work with them, and how they help achieve the organisational goals.
5. Show the big picture
People work better together when they know what the organisation and department is trying to achieve, what their role is, and ultimately how they help, and are helped by, other teams to achieve goals. This is especially important as universities become ever-more complex market-driven organisations.
The big picture is usually stressed during induction, but all too often it is neglected afterwards, allowing barriers to form between teams.
So agree with your fellow managers to use a team meeting to explore the big picture and the interconnections between teams.
Maybe there are other options for team members to shadow other teams or undertake (virtual) site visits? Managers can explore the big picture and individual purpose in one-to-ones, which is great for exploring individual motivations and future development.
6. Find non-work opportunities to connect
I remember when it was the smokers who were always the most well-connected people, but there are other healthier ways of bringing people together. I’ve worked in several places where staff social committees, charity events and sports teams united people from across the organisation – building the links and understanding that helps to overcome the barrier of silo working.
Traditionally, universities have had a strong track record in this field – so the message is more one of mindset. Recognise the essential business function that these non-work societies have, and support your team members to participate.
Deliberate small-scale action can have big impacts.
These may sound like minor actions in the face of a major challenge, but the reality is that barriers are less likely to be smashed than they are to be eroded by many different small acts, continued over time.
So the crucial message to all leaders is to be strategic in your thinking, to involve others and to plan out how your team can play a part in breaking down silos and building an integrated organisation.
About the author: Eszter Molnar Mills is Director, management and organisational development specialist at Formium Development. Eszter helps leaders and managers thrive through coaching, facilitation, training and organisational development activities. As an external consultant, she has worked with a wide range of universities in the UK and further afield. Her personal focus is on using strengths and positive approaches to get the best out of people, and helping managers adapt to the unique challenges of hybrid working.