How to shift from silos to collaboration?

On the face of it moving from working in silos to collaborative teams seems straightforward – change the structure, reporting lines, role profiles and make accountabilities clear. However it usually takes more than this to make the change happen.

Part of the reason that it is more complex than it first appears (leaving organizational culture aside) is that changes in systems and structures make implicit, invisible demands that people stage shift into radically new ways of relating to their world.

For example let’s look at how to shift from silos to collaborative teams requires people to use their power differently.

Leaders need to use their power to develop and use the power and expertise of others. This is problematic for leaders who derive their sense of personal worth from being powerful, important, expert, decisive and/or in charge.

This is highly confrontational for them, as they have to ask themselves ”Who am I if I am not my ability to take command, be the technical expert and make the right decision?” Likewise it is hard for those who have shunned power and played the safe, loyal, hardworking follower as a way of being protected and valued by those in power.

They now are being asked to take on risk, step into conflict, make tough decisions and take on more responsibility and visibility than they are used to carrying. They are faced with the dilemma of ”How do I remain worthy and safe if I risk both failure and the displeasure of those above me?”

In short to be able to move from a silo mentality to a collaborative mentality requires that people reach a specific stage in their development characterized by the following elements, which are not exhaustive:

  • The ability to hold many diverse perspectives some of which may differ significantly from their own, rather than take on a limited number of perspectives, ignore other perspectives or disregard their own perspective

  • Using their power to develop and use the power and expertise of others, recognising that they are not letting go of control but gaining power by sharing power, rather than holding on to their power and staying in charge

  • An internal set of rules or regulations which they can use to make decisions or mediate conflicts rather than be stymied by conflicts between them and important others or just between important others. This results in increased self- motivation and self-direction.

However research shows that only about 30% of the population are at that stage of development so the rest need to develop to get there. It is likely that at least some of the people required to move to collaborative ways of working are not at that stage.

The Shift from Silos to Collaboration

This shift goes beyond skill development and requires that individuals fundamentally change their internal system of identity. At each progressive developmental stage a new design principle is used to relate the self to the world.

Using a metaphor from Bob Anderson, one operating system, which makes sense of reality, needs to be upgraded for another more expanded one, where more complexity, more abstraction and more perspectives can be handled with a lot more ease and grace. The research is clear that higher levels of development tend to build upon and incorporate the earlier stages, no stages can be skipped and the stages emerge in an order that cannot be altered by environmental conditioning or social reinforcement.

However challenges in the environment stimulate the necessity to develop to higher stages.

Skill Development

Skill development is necessary to become familiar and competent with what is required to operate in collaborative teams e.g. learning to suspend judgment whilst listening deeply to another’s perspective, learning to make own point of view discussable rather than imposing it.

However no amount of knowledge and skills training will be sufficient in itself to enable a shift to a higher stage of development. At each new stage there is increased capacity to see more nuance and deal with paradox and ambiguity, becoming more agile and responsive in the process.

If skill development is unwittingly intended to build a person’s ability to deal with the increased complexity and nuances of a role, it is not such a wise investment. Equally having a higher capacity to deal with complexity does not necessarily mean that a leader has the knowledge, skills or desire to carry out their role well.

What is required to shift from silos to collaboration?

For the shift to happen is an initial assessment of whether the leaders stage of development matches the requirements of the role. If it does not then targeted specialist interventions are required over time, which take account of the individual’s entire spectrum of capacity e.g. cognitive, emotional, interpersonal.

Then the questions can be asked ”Does he/she have the required knowledge, skills and desire to carry out the role and what are the necessary resulting actions?”

Article written by Aine Watkins