In recent decades, the conversation around occupational silos has had one main emphasis: breaking them down. But even if breaking down silos was a simple task (it's not), that isn’t the answer. After all, silos are often created intentionally and for good reasons. Silos can actually reduce complexity and the best silos limit dependencies and streamline production processes.
We need to change the conversation to focus on bridging silos and creating open lines of communication and collaboration between teams.
Before we can address how to connect silos, it’s important to understand why they exist in the first place.
How Agile processes create intentional silos
In some business circles, silos are seen as roadblocks on the path to innovation and growth, and organizations worry that siloed teams will operate with total independence and fail to align on larger goals. This negative perception of silos stems from silos that are created unintentionally. Unintentional silos are artifacts of a system or business process that is no longer relevant or current and they can hamper communication between teams and create unnecessary impediments to innovation and speed. So it’s important to take inventory and uncover unintentional silos that are doing more harm than good.
But by framing silos as inherently negative, as things that need to be demolished, leaders miss the opportunity to maintain the benefits of silos. Silos are a natural result of Agile and Lean management processes. To remain nimble, flexible, and responsive within an Agile environment, teams need to stay small and autonomous.
When created intentionally, silos can allow for more specialization within these small teams. Creating silos around teams makes it easier for them to focus and manage their own production schedules instead of being dependent on other teams. The result? Teams are able to pick up the pace, ignore external distractions, and develop the expertise they need to solve problems and plan for the future.
The challenge becomes managing these silos across teams and departments, and it’s an issue that each member of the leadership team at Lucid faces. In chatting with Nathan Rawlins, our CMO here at Lucid, about the task of managing silos within an Agile framework, he explained it this way:
“Silos allow for more specialization, but what it means is that while in the past we were talking about some relatively small number of silos that we were trying to break down, we are now talking about orders of magnitude more silos, and silos that we very deliberately created.”
Speed, autonomy, faster iteration—these are all positive facets of a business dedicated to continuous improvement and innovation. The silos that foster these very qualities are not the problem. The problem is the lack of orchestration across teams and layers of dependencies. To solve this problem, organizations need to create the connective tissue between silos to maintain the speed, the autonomy, the iterations of individual teams, while ensuring high-level orchestration with as low of an overhead as possible.
Rather than focusing on breaking down silos, the conversation among business leaders needs to shift to the deliberate, thoughtful management of silos and how teams can improve cross-functional communication without sacrificing speed and agility.
Managing silos starts with company culture
Effective silo management starts with company culture. The company cultures that do the best job at managing and connecting silos are those that prioritize teamwork, ownership, and responsibility. Within these types of companies, individual team members are trusted to recognize what isn’t working and to take action. Everyone is a founder and everyone owns their part in the production process.
At Lucid, we promote a core value of teamwork over ego combined with individual ownership and autonomy. When every team member is invited to behave like an owner and to invest in roadmaps and outcomes from start to finish, they will naturally span silos and connect with teams across the organization. Broad, end-to-end ownership is healthy and infuses teams and organizations with passion.
When team members are expected to own projects and put teamwork ahead of their individual egos, silos are transformed from insurmountable obstacles to structures connected across a web of communication and collaboration.
Enhancing communication and collaboration across silos
Regardless of how self-directed and autonomous teams are, they are very rarely operating in complete isolation. They are part of a whole, and their work intersects and overlaps with work produced by other teams across an organization. Often, these different teams are given the same information, but they end up interpreting that information differently through their own lenses of experience and knowledge.
As Nathan puts it:
“As we talk about the needs of teams, there needs to be a lingua franca across these teams. We think that it's best to be visual.”
Teams need a common language that facilitates alignment and shared understanding. Visual communication is the ideal solution.
During our conversation, Nathan related the concept of a lingua franca to some recent renovations that took place at his home. Think about a construction crew adding a new wall to a room. That team has a framer, a drywaller, an electrician, and others. Each of them has the specialized skills and knowledge needed to get their job done. At the same time, they are working as a team on a project that is larger than any one of their individual tasks. They need a way to communicate with each other about plans and next steps.
Now imagine that this construction crew was limited to communicating via text messages on their phones. Instructions that seem clear to one member of the team could easily be misinterpreted by a different member of that team. The project might get off track and be delayed. Construction crews need a visual representation of what they're trying to accomplish, a shared vision of all the details that make up the whole build and how each piece fits together.
Communication between business teams comes with similar challenges. The complexities and demands of modern business have created a need for specialization and agility, but teams often end up acting so quickly that they don’t put time and effort into communicating well. Critical context and alignment are sometimes sacrificed for speed. Just like for a construction crew, visuals are often the answer to avoiding these communication pitfalls.
Organizations must find ways to bridge silos and get teams to speak a shared language. This initiative begins with establishing a company culture centered on both individual ownership and broad collaboration across teams. Once that framework is in place, the most effective way to build communication channels is to use a visual language that is quickly and easily understood by everyone involved.
How visuals provide context to keep teams aligned
First of all, visuals remove a lot of the guesswork. Sequences, dependencies, relationships, containment—these are all facets that are hard to put into words, but simple to convey with the right visuals. Increase the likelihood that everyone will understand your communications, and you increase alignment across the board.
Visuals deliver a total communications package complete with all the necessary context that teams need to align on projects. Words alone just aren’t enough when it comes to team communications. We know too many verbal shortcuts that allow us to talk around a project, avoiding potential gaps and problem areas. Not to mention, we all do a bit of performing when we communicate orally. Passion and intensity can often cover up a lack of specificity.
Effective business communication is all about tackling the details and connecting the dots between moving parts. When you sit down to create a visual, it quickly becomes clear what’s missing and what needs some rearranging. This visual practice forces you to think holistically about the larger project and the various components at work within that project. By the time you’ve worked through the process of creating a comprehensive visual plan, you’ve thought through the individual facets and developed a clear vision for your project.
The value of an integrated visual collaboration platform
When you incorporate visuals from end to end, from ideation to delivery, you reap the benefits of being “on the record.” This means that you can access early ideas and mock-ups no matter where you are in your product development cycle and that your original goals and motivations remain front and center.
The trouble is, most companies struggle to be on the record with how they moved from idea to development to delivery. There’s always a bit of revisionist history interfering with a clear vision of prior decisions and motivations.
Add in silos and everything just gets worse. If decisions were originally made in one silo, but they’re now being orchestrated across other silos, it’s likely that more and more context is getting erased with every passing of the baton.
When everything from your earliest ideations to design mockups to your delivery roadmaps are housed in an integrated visual platform like the Lucid Visual Collaboration Suite, you suddenly have a traceable development path. You can revisit earlier versions of ideas, remind yourself and your team about the “why” at the center of it all, and keep everyone aligned around a shared vision. You can look at a flowchart or roadmap, but you can also easily go back to a brainstorming session to look at the original logic behind the project. You can even see the voting record of the people that participated and the comments everyone left on different ideas. It’s a new level of transparency that can connect silos and keep everyone on track.
The problem isn’t silos. The problem is how we connect silos and balance agility with alignment. The shift to remote work has made it clearer than ever that verbal communications just aren’t enough to keep teams working together and communicating well. The modern work environment demands a better system. And that system is visual.
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