Changing mindsets by breaking silos

Screenshot of this article during the Signals design phase

When people talk about digital transformation, the word “culture” always pops up in conversations. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the public or the private sector. It appears to be commonly understood that there is something beyond digital which should be transformed. Nevertheless, the responsibility of actually executing that “transformation” is handed over and over again, exclusively to the more technological or innovative area of the organization. It is usually the CTO or the innovation lab leader who are given the role of leading the way into the new era of technological changes. Are they up for the challenge? Do they have what it takes? The quick answer is “not by themselves”. In fact, no one person in the organization alone, has the power to transform it.

Vijay Govindarajan perfectly depicts this situation in his book “How did Stella Save the Farm?”. In this modern business fable, Govindarajan characterizes a farm which is run by animals themselves. These characters  are suddenly faced with the challenge of transforming their current core business. With a series of very close-to-heart behavioural examples, this book shows us that “transformation” is not the responsibility of one or two individuals in the organization. In fact, it is not even the responsibility of only one or two areas. It is actually an orchestrated effort which requires multiple skills, talents, passions and above all, empathy, good will and humbleness. In my experience I’ve seen three things which are key to generating cultural change in favor of a real transformation.

Use of logic over use of methodology

One common mistake I’ve noticed in the process of transforming, is attempting to use methodologies as the ultimate guide. What undoubtedly occurs when your only tool is a how-to-do-Design-Thinking or a how-to-do-Scrum guidebook, is that they don’t teach you how to deal with the real consequences of implementing these practices. Issues such as resistance to change, or breaking traditional hierarchical organization models, and top-down decision making are the real challenges.

The same occurs when technology by itself is expected to be the catalyst of change. Tools and methodologies are necessary, but being true to them is never more important than being flexible enough to understand where to draw the line and when to make modifications so that they better meet the organization’s needs. This is why neither the best Design Thinking Strategist nor the ultimate software expert can save the day without involving other equally important players.

Breaking silos

When I’ve looked at successful organizational models whose employees or civil servants are delivering great services, one of the main things I’ve noticed is that they work in multidisciplinary teams.  This means that the team members don’t necessarily belong to a well-defined “area” or have a well-defined “role”, but they do have well-defined abilities which enrich the process and above all, the team dynamics.  What this means is that in a digital world in which the user needs are the main driver, the organizational culture should be such that every team member is encouraged to perform at their full potential without having to worry about their job description.

In a traditional pyramidal organizational structure, it is hard for the “bottom of the pyramid” workers or first line employers, to understand what top managers think is important. As a result of that, there is very little communication and a lot of bureaucracy. Under this paradigm user centered design is only the responsibility of a few of those workers, and agility — if any — may occur in silos, but not in the entire value chain. Under this structure it is almost impossible for teams to feel autonomous and empowered. The latter just becomes an exclusive benefit which only a few people are granted.

When faced with the overarching challenge of changing an entire corporation, both the innovation leaders and the tech leaders will remain short of tools when creating strategy. They will naturally only turn to their immediate teams in order to make a plan. This will further exacerbate the silo-working paradigm because they will not necessarily be involving the entire organization. A a result of that, only their specific area will work differently (using scrum, for example), whereas the rest will remain the same. This is when a scaling strategy is important. The transformation can be ignited by anyone in the organization, but carrying it through requires involving everyone else.

On the other hand, when combining innovation and technology with other core business players and designers, that is when the real magic begins.

Once a small, empowered, cross-functional team is created and the conditions are given for it to thrive, the delivery of their first project should be small in scale but big on end-user impact. Doing team configuration beta tests at this stage is almost as important as the product being delivered.

Under a new modern user-centered organization, the heads of the organization no longer hold the decision-making rights and veto powers, but they become sponsors of change. This also requires a reformulation of their current role, tasks and responsibilities. Literally breaking silos and creating cross-functional end-to-end delivery teams with a true purpose, is the most powerful way to begin cultural transformation.

The User Experience Practitioner as an orchestrator of change

Changing the perception of what culture is, also means not mistaking business goals or a political agenda with real user needs. I might be biased when I say this because I come from the UX practicing background, however any user centered-focused area with enough tools and skills could become the orchestrator of change. This should include a strategy in which a small beta delivery team is created and designated to solve a real user problem. It also helps to add to the team, skills that traditional digital teams would not usually have, such as psychologists or anthropologists. These new skills will make sure to factor in the “user centered” focus more naturally and help the teams maintain it.

The User Experience team will have to help the rest of the organization understand what user centered focus is all about. At the end of the day all those involved in the “beta team” could potentially evolve to becoming squad leaders and managers of future teams. The initial or beta team needs to have this in mind as part of their scaling strategy. That is when UX stops being a group of people who work delivering great digital experiences together, and evolves into being the shared responsibility of everyone in the organization who is working to deliver a user-centric product or service.


Heidi Uchiyama is a member of the Public Digital affiliates network

This is part of Signals, Winter 2018

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