The structure that strengthens cross-team collaboration

Posted on May 29, 2018

Vahid Saberi, Founder and Managing Director of VSA Australia, writes this month’s post. Vahid works closely with Nexus to improve healthcare through strategic planning and development.

Greg’s recent musings on why working together is so hard and how to break down silos has provided valuable advice for those looking to strengthen cross-team collaboration in their organisation. So how do we apply these lessons in our organisation?

The challenge is that organisations are often designed on a command and control-based model, built around functions such as design, marketing, sales, accounting and so on. This is very pronounced in human services, where typical structures revolve around planning, commissioning and service delivery.

What happens is that each control line becomes a silo in itself, with a tier of management that has their own budgets and KPIs. Everything is contained in that silo, which means silos then start competing for the megaphone, space or authority (or all of these things).

This results in a fractured arrangement which can often make people lose sight of the overall vision and purpose of the organisation. I’ve worked in hospitals and healthcare management for 26 years, and I’ve found this issue quite common among government organisations.

Over the years, I’ve often tried to build connections between teams using a range of methods. It always works for a period of time, but eventually reverts back to business as usual. When I took on the role of CEO of a Primary Health Network (PHN), I saw an opportunity to try something new.

Establishing a holistic structure

Organisations have a tendency to overcome their fragmentation by restructuring and creating mega portfolios. This means less people in top management and fewer functional areas, but a risk that each portfolio ends up becoming multiple silos, failing to address the very problem it was designed to solve.

After learning about holacracy and reading the book The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, I began by experimenting with the organisational structure of the PHN, by building project teams called ‘circles’ around the capabilities required for a job. The members of each circle were chosen for their skills, rather than their place in the organisation.

For example, digital health requires a range of capabilities, such as engaging with GPs, strong communications skills, project management and data analysis. This is difficult to build into one team if there’s limited budget. Instead, we brought people with these capabilities together from across the organisation.

The circle is virtual, so staff stay within their teams and don’t physically move to a new place. They are only there to provide expertise in the form of advice and guidance to the project manager, who is ultimately responsible for the project. The circle is responsible for delivering the project through the project manager, despite the fact that the individuals within each circle are part of different teams in the organisation.

The most important element of the circle is the quarterly strategy meeting. This determines the metrics for the next three months and the capabilities required to deliver the KPIs. The executive team and often the CEO attend the quarterly strategy meetings. At these meetings, the group looks back to see what was achieved in the previous quarter and looks forward to see what needs to be done to build on their accomplishments. Specific actions and metrics are then set (such as ‘increase registration of pharmacists by 50 per cent’) and capabilities required to deliver these are noted. Based on these capabilities, the right individuals for each role are identified and approached, ensuring that no individual is on more than four circles at any time.

Participants of each circle hold tactical meetings for an hour a week, to ensure the project is progressing, based on a checklist of activity that works to achieve the quarterly metrics. This ensures progress is made, knots are untied and the project manager has the support they need. It’s important to note that functional circles do not do the work, but provide specialist advice to support the capabilities of the organisation. For example, a matrix focusing on pharmacy may have a pharmacy specialist in that circle, who would not necessarily have the capabilities to join other circles.

After three months, the metrics are used to assess the performance of circles. Trello (a project management platform) is used to house all information about the project and is accessible to anyone in the organisation. This makes it easy to understand the focus of the project, the actions undertaken and the progress of each activity at any time.

In my experience, if a project manager is finding it difficult and their performance is not what it should be, it becomes obvious very quickly and management can focus on supporting them in their role and making the changes that might be needed, rather than realise after a year that the project has stagnated.

A flexible and sustainable approach

This approach has proven to be effective and continued as a sustainable model in the PHN, even after I left the organisation. Creating autonomous teams not only reduces silos and addresses inefficiencies, but gives individuals the authority to reduce middle-management bottlenecks, and thrive.

I believe most organisations will move to this model in the next 4-5 years, once they realise that we can’t continue with the old command and control-based model in the new world. It’s more than a restructure, it’s a mindset that focuses on understanding the problem before designing a solution.

If you’re interested in implementing a holacracy to break down silos and better connect teams across your organisation, please contact us.