tearing down silos

Stop Trying to Tear Down My Silo

“Tear down silos!”

“Let’s silo smash!”

“Break down those walls!”

These are passionate phrases I’ve heard repeatedly when it comes to employee engagement and change management, in a perceived effort to improve an organization by fostering collaboration and understanding through HULK SMASH language. I frequently used these phrases myself, in an effort to demonstrate my passion for transformation. But it’s the wrong approach.

Inspired by my recent post on change management to welcome digital transformation, I had a conversation on Linkedin that brought up those phrases and reinforced the importance of looking at them differently.

A few years ago, I was attending a cross-organizational workshop that was meant to help foster different ways of thinking from leadership, specifically around innovation and future planning. We got into problem solving mode as we talked about readying our business areas for change, with the usual buzzwords and “silo busting” terms thrown around. That’s when someone, leaning against the wall on the edges of the larger group said something kind of under his breath that I’ll never forget…

“But I like my silo. It lets me focus and be productive, and not be distracted by whatever anyone else is doing.”

That statement has stuck with me ever since and has been a guiding filter for my own change management efforts.

“Tearing down”, “smashing”, “ripping open” or whatever violent act we think is the right motivator for getting others to embrace our ideas and innovations is about you and your agenda, not about the people IN those silos.

Those terms and that approach doesn’t lend themselves to curiosity, empathy or collaboration. The ingredients necessary to get people to listen, trust and be open to new opportunities. It comes off far too much about you than it does about them. The danger being that “knowing better” or forcing change and new ideas on others who feel perfectly OK with what they are familiar with, you could be pushing them away from connection and collaboration.

For lasting, impactful adoption, everyone needs to be involved and see the value in it for themselves. Not just by those looking to make change. Otherwise, you’re building more silos.

Reading through speaker and customer experience consultant Annette Franz’s book Customer Understanding, she introduced me to the concept of the “outside-in” vs “inside-out” approach. Though she applies it for the customer relationships, I have found it’s just as important for the employee one. I love how simple but important it is in framing how we approach others. And it’s important to understand which approach you are adopting.

*I’ve quoted Annette’s book in the definitions of these approaches below, making adjustments to incorporate the focus on employees rather than customers.”

Inside-Out Approach

Your focus is on processes, systems, tools and products that are designed and implemented based on internal thinking and intuition. You make decisions because you think it’s what’s best for the organization – not for employees. Or you think you know what’s best for employees.

This approach is often taken due to lack of resources, especially time. A strict timeline is enforced and results are expected. However, it’s important to note that this path may help wrap up a change management project, but will be less effective long-term.

For example, this approach is about making changes that:

  • are about checking boxes on a “To Do” list.
  • don’t care about buy-in from staff.
  • don’t care about redundancies.
  • are about numbers, not people.
  • are short-term focused.

If your business area is making plans to affect change across your organization with a strategic plan that does not consider the various types of roles and responsibilities it will affect, the geographical locations of staff, the preferences in communications, the previous attempts and failures in change management, the culture in which you’re making change and other variables… you are knee-deep into an inside-out approach.

Outside-In Approach

You look at your organization from the employee’s perspective and subsequently design processes, tools and communications and make decisions based on what’s best for the employee based on what meets the employee’s needs. You listen to them, and you understand them and the jobs they are trying to do.

This approach is about making changes that:

  • prioritize collaboration.
  • come from a place of curiosity.
  • demonstrate care for the thoughts and suggestion of those impacted.
  • ensure communication is effective.

So looking at this, we can probably agree that Outside-in is the right approach, especially if we want to reach that person who prefers there silos. Of course they do, it’s familiar. It’s what they know. It’s simple. But if they see how removing silo walls could benefit them, their clients and their customers in a way that’s valuable to them… you’re on to something.

Getting Outside-In Ready

  • Listen and acknowledge what you hear.
  • Answer all the questions you get.
  • Be accessible
  • Create brand personas for the various types of employees you have to better empathize with them.
  • Follow up with employees and close any loops
  • Define employee problems and look to how you can help them
  • Actions are prioritized as much as words
  • Create a knowledge library and/or tools to educate the organization on what everyone does.
  • Survey your employees to regularly to determine effectiveness
  • Make sure employees have a seat at the executive and HR tables, even if it’s empty. (Jay Baer’s Comcast example, but for employees)
  • Talk about customers and what they are saying

Lifting the curtain, rather than tearing down, of silos provides an amazing opportunity to foster empathy in your organization. It’s much easier to be patient and sympathetic when you understand the environment, challenges and culture of those you share the brand with.
It’s a lot hard to foster that empathy, if you start with an inside-out approach rather than an outside-in one.

How do you reduce silos and better connect your organization?

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