Why are we sitting in silos like Russian dolls?

Posted on March 15, 2018

Nexus recently worked with a government agency that was shifting a number of its most important services online. The change was significant and the stakes were high, in terms of organisational reputation and perceived value for money, as well as client and community satisfaction. Yet the implementation of this change was managed as a series of independent projects, so much so that each unit had its own project code for accounting purposes!

During the process, there was an acknowledgment that a siloed approach was not working and that staff needed to get better at working across teams. This has been a recurring theme in the public sector over the past 20 years—despite better collaboration among agencies, many are still not adept at getting staff to work across internal boundaries, let alone other agencies. In many government agencies, there are even silos within silos, like a stack of Russian dolls.

So why is working together so hard? Let’s take a look.

Organisational structure

Government organisations were designed from the outset as vertical, hierarchical structures that sit most comfortably with the Westminster tenet of Ministerial accountability. This means that cross-team collaboration is often like a game of snakes and ladders, where you need to go up and across before going back down the chain of command. The remuneration system also rewards people based on how many people work for them, which means that executives are often reluctant to let go of their turf.

Project governance

The governance around collaboration between teams is often immature and unplanned, such as using multiple accounting codes for the one project. Many cross-team projects also fail to clarify roles and responsibilities of teams and executives, so accountability is unclear. People rely on senior management to bring teams together, yet many executive teams treat their portfolio like individual organisations, which enhances the Russian doll effect.

Project planning

Teamwork necessarily involves joint planning and collaboration from project initiation through to implementation and review. In practice however, the ‘lead’ team often retreats into developing the plan unilaterally and doesn’t involve or even inform others who should be involved. This is particularly galling for corporate areas like HR, finance and IT, who are often left in the dark and whose ability to support the core business is utterly compromised.

Daily pressures

The day-to-day pressures of the team are often placed above tasks requested by other teams. This may be acceptable in a crisis, but if teams are always prioritising their own work, then there’s a perverse outcome. The urgent triumphs often over the important, particularly with large and complex projects that are implemented over long periods of time.

Unfortunately, the most common solution or quick fix to working in silos is to do a restructure that builds links between teams that should be working closer together. However, restructures are expensive, take a long time (they’re often not quick fixes!) and consume large amounts of organisational and emotional energy. They are also often self-defeating—no structure is perfect, so no matter where people sit, they will need to work across different teams and agencies. The same inability to work across teams will arise as the root problems have not been addressed.

In next month’s blog, we’ll look at some tools you can use to address these challenges and facilitate cross-team collaboration. If you need any expert advice in the meantime, please get in touch.