Break Down Those Silos To Gain Business Agility

If you want your enterprise to be agile, look first at your data silos -- silos packed with information -- that keep people and departments from communicating effectively.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

January 31, 2017

5 Min Read
Christopher O'Malley, Compuware
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Business leaders often make the mistake of assuming they can make their organization more agile by simply getting everyone to work faster. This is an egregious fallacy for at least two reasons.

First, the theory of constraints tells us that any improvement not made at a process bottleneck are illusory. So if everyone works faster -- but the handoffs between teams are still slow -- that faster work won’t produce the desired results.

Second, a boat won’t move very quickly if everyone rows really hard in different directions. So, fast work only delivers improved outcomes when all business functions work collaboratively towards the same goal.

This isn’t to say that leaders shouldn’t look for opportunities to improve the productivity and output speed of their people, teams, and departments. But managers have been pushing on those KPIs for years without making their organizations any better able to nimbly respond to the urgent and unpredictable change that has become commonplace in digital markets.

The biggest obstacle to agility at most organizations isn’t how hard people work. It’s the silos between those hard-working people. Silos stop end-to-end business processes dead in their tracks. And they create an environment where different teams have different agendas, cultures and processes.

To make your organization agile, you therefore have to vigorously attack your organization’s silos.

Finding the gaps

The first step in removing counter-productive silos is to find them. This seems simple enough, but most of us have become so used to accepting silos as a fact of life that we fail to clearly identify them.  Silos aren’t just spaces in your org chart, although that’s not a bad place to start looking for them. Silos exist wherever there is a disconnect or conflict between groups.

One good way to discover these disconnects and conflicts is to listen for the statements groups make about each other. Sales, for example, is notorious for complaining about the number and/or quality of the leads marketing produces for them. At the same time, marketing typically complains that the sales team doesn’t “get” their latest campaign messaging.

[Check out Christopher O'Malley's previous article, There's No "Thing" You Can Do To Be Agile.]

In an agile business, sales and marketing have to work together much more seamlessly than that. Sure, salespeople will always want more leads. But you can’t get new products to market quickly simply by innovating. You also need a marketing-and-sales operation that can quickly understand your new, innovative offerings and do what it takes to get those offerings in front of customers with the right value narrative.

That won’t happen if your product managers, marketers, and salespeople see each other as inherent obstacles, rather than as teammates who communicate well, work collaboratively towards common goals, and actually have a culture of missional camaraderie.

Building Bridges

Once you’ve identified a problematic silo in your organization, the obvious next step is to try eliminating it.

Here’s where leaders have to be especially perceptive and creative. There are lots of ways to eliminate silos. The trick is to apply the right techniques to the right situations. Among your options are:

Shared goals and incentives. Teams often fail to work in sync because their objectives diverge. A classic example is IT operations being measured by uptime, which incentivizes them to resist the more frequent code drops Agile development is trying to drive. In these cases, it makes more sense to get both groups on the same page with a common goal, such as faster release cycles (e.g., monthly improvements to the customer experience).

Job switching and role fluidity. Another great silo-destroying tactic is to have people rotate in and out of different roles in different teams. This tactic contributes to agility by giving people a much greater appreciation of what other teams in the value chain have to do every day. It also builds the individual’s skill set. In fact, it’s good to keep everyone’s role fluid and not too concretely defined. That way, people don’t over-identify with a position or a system when you really want them to identify with a mission.

Process re-engineering. While they shouldn’t be viewed as a panacea, workflow automation technologies can often help to bridge organizational silos. Integration between HR and IT systems, for example, can be particularly useful for keeping people’s digital workspace tightly aligned with their particular roles, even as the increasingly agile nature of your business requires you to change those roles much more frequently.

The sit-down. Sometimes you just need to sit people down and have them work out the problem for themselves with the right guidance. This approach requires some serious conflict management skills—but it can pay off with big, quick wins.

There are lots of little things you can do to chip away at silos, too. At my company, for example, we ring a bell within earshot of development every time we close a deal, and not just the big ones, because every customer and every transaction matters. This bell-ringing allows salespeople, marketing, administration, support, product management and developers to all enjoy a shared moment of celebration that tangibly signifies their shared accomplishment.

So, if you want your organization to be more adaptively respond to accelerating changes in the market -- including relentlessly escalating customer expectations and the often-unexpected appearance of disruptive competitors -- eliminate the silos that interrupt the “signal” that flows from discovery of market changes to the appropriate business response. You’re likely to get better results than you would if you just focused on each of your functional areas in isolation.

Christopher O’Malley is CEO of Compuware. He has nearly 30 years of IT experience, with past positions including CEO of VelociData, CEO of Nimsoft, EVP of CA’s Cloud Products & Solutions and EVP/GM of CA’s Mainframe business unit, where he led the successful transformation of that division.

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