Team of Teams & Complexity: An Approach for breaking down Silos

Posted on January 16, 2017

Once upon a time we categorized companies into two broad categories with regards to decision making: Centralized & De-centralized. This model is easy to comprehend when we think of a central headquarters housing centralized functions and executives, and then a large number of branches which service local regions. A bank or retail operation is a common example. Thinking on the subject seems non-applicable to companies that lack this distributed branch structure.

This old debate actually continues to rage today in companies of all sizes, however it is more subtly implemented. Rather than a central HQ we have some central decision making body, typically the “executive team” or “c-suite”. Rather than branches in different physical locations, we have segmented teams responsible for a given organizational or business function. When the teams responsibilities are independent of other functions they are “silos”.

The solution to “breaking down silos” is to create a shared responsibility and empower that via shared context, or what is better called “shared consciousness”. So long as one teams performance is independent of other teams, a sense of competition will overpower any sense of cooperation unless conditions happen to arise in which the benefit is mutual across teams, but this is difficult to replicate reliably.

The book Team of Teams outlines this well, it brings together into a very potent package all of the concepts that have been percolating across industries, and in technology has the label “DevOps”. Team of Teams demonstrates the concepts applied to the military, Beyond Budgeting demonstrates the concepts applied to finance, The Four Steps to the Epiphany demonstrates the concepts applied to product and startup creation.

A central theme of these various methods is that the world has changed into a complex one where each part has more degrees of freedom and can have a significantly higher impact than ever before in history due to the increasing flow of information and communications capability. The world of the 80’s, in which companies acquired millions of customers was complicated… but in the 2010’s, each of those customers can impact the decisions of millions of other customers via social networking, which is complex.

The prevailing model to understand current reality is David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework. I didn’t once hear David cited in Team of Teams but the Cynefin framework was explained more than once and clearly unpinned the entire book…. because Cynefin underpins the 21st Century. It explains the reality of our current world and therefore will, if true, be found everywhere in the DNA of reality.

The central battle inside of companies today is for action, and the weapons of this battle are powered by attention. Business moves so fast and each employee is so empowered that traditional leadership hierarchies can not successfully manage them. Leaders who attempt to micro-manage will fail to accomplish much of anything, therefore they simply take their hands off the wheels and are drug along helplessly. This is dangerous because employees still look to these leaders for guidance (known traditionally as “strategy”) and they, increasingly, have little to no idea. Thus, the blind lead the blind and everyone suffers.

In these environments, if there is anger and negative emotions we call them “toxic” and if there is passivity and positive emotions we call them “healthy”. While its preferable to live in an environment which isn’t toxic, if decision making is slow and ineffective we continue to live in a blind leading the blind world which feels like a treadmill and eventually gives way to despair or simply contributes yet more passivity to the environment, fueling yet more cycles.

Implicit in Team of Teams is the solution… shared mission. Bring together those functions within the organization which have a similar mission (or outcome) to produce an environment with shared consciousness around all those inputs and outputs, to produce a single larger and more integrated value chain. This has been implemented in decades past using the “matrix organizational model” but that was a failed attempt to control rather than empower around the ultimate mission which results in customer value generation and preservation.

The great battle between those ideas of “centralization” vs “de-centralization” are alive and well in the 21st century, but today they are silos rather than branches. Attempts to break down silos have largely failed because of a lack of support from executive leaders and an inability to properly identify the relevant value streams across organizations. Only when we understand those streams can we identify the related functions, by which we can create a single sense of mission, and then empower that mission with the shared consciousness which unlocks the potential of every individual involved.

We have the tools, we know how to do this… but here, now, in the year 2017, we still fail to do it. Culture matters, but only when we measure culture by value creation and customer satisfaction rather than employee comfort will we break free of our current rut. This will be driven perhaps most heavily by the talent drain associated with the Millennials who are demanding not just a comfortable place to work, but a place where they will have an “impact”. This urge is the correct one because unlike our previous generations they haven’t grown up in a world where you simply manage the complicated and mind your business, they grew up in a complex world and are free to act in ways that are powerful, even when they appear incoherent and misdirected to the previous generations. And more over, the idea that this is purely a “millennial” issue is false, anyone keeping up with the waves of innovation, regardless of age, is likely of the same mindset.

The world is complex…. your constraints are wrong…. now start fixing this system through experimentation and adaptation around value streams producing the experience your customers want.