How Designers Can Help Bust Silos

When I talk with folks in large organizations, I often hear a familiar lament: “We’re very siloed here.” By this, they mean the organization is divided into​ groups that don’t play well with others. Each group functions like an isolated “silo” that acts independently from the rest. They each have their own internal goals, incentives, processes, etc. which make it difficult for them to collaborate.

Siloing impedes the organization’s ability to respond effectively (and in a timely manner) to changing contextual conditions. Because it involves organizational cultures and incentives, it can be a tough challenge to overcome. People in silos have an especially hard time seeing things from others’ perspectives — especially their colleagues.

A big part of the problem is that people in these situations​ tend to communicate in abstract terms. Often they’re unaware of using language that reinforces the distinctions between them. With our emphasis on making things tangible, designers can help them bust through these barriers.

What do we mean by “siloing”?

Siloing is a common problem that arises from the organization’s need to provide different functions. A group charged with manufacturing a product will have very different concerns from the group tasked with marketing it. Ultimately both are concerned with bringing the product to customers, but in the near-term, they focus on different objectives. Sometimes, these objectives overlap, but sometimes, they don’t. They may even be at odds with each other. In extreme cases, internal groups may also compete with each other for resources.

Silos don’t arise only because of different concerns; different groups develop cultures of their own. These cultural differences manifest most obviously in jargon: specialized vocabulary that allows team members to communicate more efficiently. A group tasked with software development will use a different technical vocabulary from that of the marketing team. There may be some overlap between the two sets of terms, but there will also be lots of specialized words that only one or the other side uses. It’s not unusual to find people in two parts of the organization using the same term to mean different things.

In siloed organizations, the culture of the part (the group) has overtaken the culture of the whole (the organization.) Focused on their immediate concerns, team members have lost sight of the bigger picture. Groups function as independent units. Rather than looking for ways to collaborate, team members begin to see their colleagues in other groups as obstacles to getting things done. Eventually, this takes a toll: new initiatives take a long time to come to market, quality suffers, employee turnover rises, etc. From the customers’ perspective, “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”

Make stuff together

Strategic design interventions are an excellent way to bust silos, allowing people from different groups to collaborate effectively — sometimes for the first time. By “strategic design intervention” I mean a design project that has strategic import to the whole organization, can be approached in a designerly way (i.e., by making a first draft of a tangible artifact,) and is small enough to be undertaken quickly and inexpensively. These small collaborations can then serve as precedents to other, larger-scale initiatives.

I’ll give you an example. Consider the development of a new product for a financial services company. Financial services is a highly regulated industry, so compliance teams are essential stakeholders in these organizations. Compliance’s job is to keep the organization and its customers from running afoul of laws. This can put them at odds with product managers who are trying to develop innovative services for customers.

Often what ensues is an unproductive back-and-forth over conference calls and emails, with members of one team attempting to persuade the other of the merits of their position. Tension mounts as communications escalate up the management chain, eventually getting to a point where someone must make a decision. It’s an inefficient way of dealing with conflicts. The reason why this is so painful is that both teams are correct, from their individual perspectives. They have different objectives and methods for achieving them that put them at odds with each other.

There’s a better way of dealing with situations such as this one: Rather than attempting to persuade each other, the teams can collaborate towards making a simple, yet useful, artifact. In this case, a useful thing to make would be a customer journey map. The nature of this artifact calls for members of both teams to suspend their inward-focused framing of the situation to adopt — for the time being — the customer’s perspective. All the while, they also bring to the project their knowledge of the backend processes and systems that will affect the customer’s experience.

In a strategic design intervention, you gather these various stakeholders for a short (two- or three-day) workshop. The ostensible objective of the workshop is to create the artifact. But while these artifacts can be valuable in their own right (e.g., a good journey map can inform subsequent design interventions,) the artifact itself is a MacGuffin. The primary value comes not from the map that comes out the other end, but from the fact that a group of people from disparate groups in the organization now have a precedent of working together on something. As a result, they have a better understanding of each others’ needs, challenges, and communication styles.

In the process of working together to make the map, team members from different groups get exposed to each others’ expertise and goals in a “neutral” setting. For a brief time, they aren’t competing for resources or attention. Instead, they’re focused a shared goal, if only for a couple of days: producing an artifact that others in the organization can build on.

Facilitating a strategic design intervention

Strategic design interventions can be transformational. Here are a few pointers to help you organize and facilitate your own:

  • Pick a subject small enough to be covered in a short workshop.
  • Ensure the output is a useful artifact. This isn’t a “trust-building” activity; the idea is to make something useful.
  • Pick a relevant MacGuffin. In the example above, a customer journey map is a useful artifact, since it frames the task from the customer’s perspective. But there are other designerly artifacts that could serve as the focus of the workshop.
  • Be mindful about who should be part of the core group that will collaborate. Work with colleagues from the various teams to determine who would be a helpful representative of each.
  • Hold workshops in a “neutral” space — i.e., not in one of the organization’s spaces — if possible. This helps folks break out of their usual patterns.
  • Similarly, it’s helpful to have the facilitator be a “neutral” party (i.e., not a member of any of the teams involved.)

You must pay special attention to language if you want to set the stage for more effective collaborations. People working in different groups may literally not understand each other. These interventions can help make them more aware of how language is affecting their ability to collaborate. During workshops, I often set aside a wall in the room as the “language wall”: there, I note with stickies all of the specialized terms and acronyms that come up during the session. As a consultant, I’m not part of the internal culture. There’s a lot I don’t know, so by the end of the workshop, the language wall is usually packed with stickies. Participants are often surprised at seeing how insular their language has become.

By the end of the workshop, everyone must have ownership of the outcomes. Before leaving, make sure everyone agrees on the path forward, including agreement on how to communicate any insights that emerged. Share-back materials should prominently list the team that participated in the workshop, so it’s clear that this was a joint effort. Remember: the artifacts that come out of the intervention can be a valuable asset to the organization, but the precedent of collaboration is more valuable. Use every opportunity to highlight this collaboration.

Better collaboration → Greater effectiveness

With our superpower — making the possible tangible — designers are in an ideal position to help teams in organizations work more effectively together. Many folks in these teams are used to communicating ideas abstractly, using words or numbers. Different people may interpret these abstractions differently – especially if they’re constrained by specialized vocabularies and framed in different incentive structures.

Coming together to make something concrete can help folks see those structures and identify opportunities to bridge them. Team members also establish a precedent of collaboration that, with the support of sympathetic leadership, can transcend their brief time together. Improved internal communications lead to better alignment, and ultimately, increased effectiveness. Sometimes, all it takes is a small, inexpensive shared project to break people from their usual patterns.