In preparation for the roll-out of a new strategic plan, the CEO asked me to meet with them and each of their direct reports to make sure they were all on the same page. To get each conversation started, I asked the following three questions: What is changing now that we have a new strategic plan? What will actually be different because of the new strategic plan? Who's going to lose what when we implement the new strategic plan?
Half way through these meetings, one person responded, “Nothing much will change. This is just like one of the new systems that we rolled out last month. It’s just more, not different.” There was a profound silence in the room and one could almost hear the CEO’s mouth hit the floor, it dropped open so quickly. I just smiled because we had run into a classic case of what I like to call “strategic blindness,” i.e we don’t see our strategy as a whole organization, and we just see the parts we like. We also had encountered a potential silo.
We forget some days that “... status quo functions elegantly to solve a stream of problems and opportunities for which it has already evolved.” As Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky write in their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Harvard Business Press, 2009, “Yesterday’s adaptive pressures, problems, and opportunities generated creative and successful responses in the organization that evolved through trial and error into refined structures, cultural norms, and default process and mind-sets.... In other words, yesterday’s adaptations are today’s routines.”
Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky in the aforementioned book explain that “Overtime, the structures, culture, and defaults that make up an organizational system becomes deeply ingrained, self-reinforcing and very difficult to reshape.” When things are going well, having a self-reinforcing culture, structure and systems is beneficial. When something important changes, e.g. the financial crisis that started in 2008, an organization or a system’s tenacity can prevent it from adapting, and from learning to thrive in a new context.
The reason this happens is that the organization is trapped by it’s current ways of doing things, simply because these ways worked in the past. The thinking and acting in a particular manner produced success for the organization. It also produced success for individuals who embraced the “new” way of doing things. It even produced leaders who reinforced the “new” way of doing things. These “new” leaders reinforced what was working and do not challenge new structures, culture or systems. The end result is that the organization becomes blind to the ever shifting competitive landscape.
When encountering a silo, first, as recommended in the book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, diagnosis whether or not you have a silo or an individual who is acting like a silo. If it is an individual, then coach in or coach out. If it is a silo, diagnosis the subsystems within it like structure including who reports to who, culture including behavioral norms, meeting protocols, ways of problem solving, decision-making, and what reinforces the culture, e.g. a certain incentive program, and systems including default systems and processes. The goal is to understand how the silo got to where it is a silo and what keeps it from evolving into something else.
Second, with the above in mind, analyze the competitive environment. What are the new adaptive pressures, challenges and opportunities that are surfacing? Distill them into specific trends, demographics, and economic indicators. Recognize you are going to have to “sell the problems” before you find the solution.
Third, reflect on this quote by Stephen Covey from his book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, Free Press, 2004: “If you want to make minor changes and improvements, work on practices, behavior and attitude, but if you want to make significant, quantum improvement, work on paradigms.” From my perspective, the power of an accurate strategic nexus helps guide all involved when working with a silo. When breaking down silos, we need to have something to replace it with otherwise people, systems and culture will default to the old way of doing things. Remember: the culture is tenacious.
If you want to explore this subject in greater depth, I would encourage you to read the comprehensive and in-depth aforementioned book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Harvard Business Press, 2009. It is very good. I also would encourage you to read John Kotter’s recent blog post on the Forbes website on “Breaking Down Silos.” Here is the link: http://blogs.forbes.com/johnkotter/2011/05/03/breaking-down-silos/.
Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257