When Organizational Silos Hurt Innovation

What's wrong with these two pictures?

a) A product manager is working on the latest strategic initiative. She's researching competition, finding opportunities in the marketplace, considering price points, sizing up the revenue potential and evaluating vendors. She may even narrow down the list of vendors to an optimal one or two, and if she's really dangerous, will determine exactly what's needed from the internal tech team to integrate the functionality. She might even have a full project plan with implementation costs. She now takes it to her boss to get the necessary backing to implement the project.

b) A technologist thinks he's found the killer new feature. He discusses it with some members of his team and they like the idea, but it's one of many good ones being discussed. The technologist isn't deterred and decides to do some prototyping, first largely in his "spare time" but as he becomes more engulfed in the implementation he devotes more time to it and loses interest in his assigned tasks. He takes his prototype as far as he can technically, then goes to his boss for the necessary backing to implement the project.

Sadly, these two individuals exist in many companies that implement customer facing technology solutions. Now there's plenty of managerial issues here - product managers evaluating vendors without gathering external input, technologists overextending their R&D efforts, etc.

But the real issue here - the root cause - is the lack of an organizational environment (including structure, process, and culture) to promote collaboration and innovation.

Lets consider a third scenario:

c) Senior leadership has identified a top level strategy and a product manager proposes to research a possible initiative. She's paired with a technologist and while she's finding opportunities in the marketplace, considering price points, and sizing up the revenue potential, the technologist is reviewing a select list of vendors. The technologist also identifies some areas where there's opportunity to innovate, our product manager agrees that solutions might provide a key value to customers, and the technologists looks to prototype. Our product manager and technologist have a good working relationship with the project management office and request assistance in developing a high level plan and cost model. These three individuals finalize a present together and present options to senior leadership.

This approach has many of the right ingredients including:
  • A clearly defined strategy that sets direction
  • Leadership asks for a multi-disciplinary team to consider options
  • A culture that encourages collaboration
  • Room for further innovation, collaboration, and iterative improvements once options are reviewed
If you think the third scenario is optimal, then ask yourself the question, why is it hard?


  1. Anonymous1:25 PM

    It's hard because collaboration is not a normal reflex. People (starting in grade school) are academically trained for individual performance and managers don't make collaboration an important sub-cultural attribute of the groups that they manage. The third scenario that you describe is achievable, but managers and Human Resource leaders must first adopt collaboration as an important priority for their organizations.



  2. Thanks for the comment. I think you make some good points about our school system. I think teachers need to create more group projects and exercises.

    In corps, I think the burden falls more on managers than HR. Managers must encourage individuals to work together.. "Joe, work with Mary on this analysis and go find someone from the Business Development". I think Managers also have to deal with the reverse. "Who worked with you on this?" and if the answer is no one, reject it...

  3. Managers are limited by the same training for individual performance as everyone else. Where HR departments can make a difference is in applying a top-down approach to bring all the department managers together with the objective of collaboration. Organizations that do highlight collaboration as an important cultural component and drive the objective from the top down are distinguished from their competition.

    The analogy (or thought experiment) that I sometimes like to use is about a professional baseball team. In the Majors players are selected to be the best in their positions. The process of scouting players, training them through the minors, and bringing them up to the Major League teams has been very well developed over multiple decades. The players chosen for the Majors are the best and the most skilled in their individual positions; the best pitchers, catchers, fielders, etc. You can't find better individual players than those that are chosen to play in the Major Leagues.

    Yet, the manager of a baseball team requires practice. Then the question that develops is, if the players are the best and the most skilled, why is practice necessary? And the answer, which isn't immediately obvious to many people, is that practice is necessary to make a better team. Practice is working together, collaborating, allowing a second baseman to know the throwing habits of a catcher when trying to throw-out a runner stealing base, for example. Practice is when a first baseman learns the nuances in the step of a pitcher when he is about to throw to first base. Or when a shortstop learns to cover for the second baseman who is fielding a right-side grounder. The perspective on practice and what teams do during practice is what makes a baseball manager great, what creates great teams, and ultimately what distinguishes one team from another in the Major Leagues.

    If you connect with that analogy, if you find that you are dwelling on the idea more as a thought experiment, there is one last question to consider to tie it together with the corporate world: What is the analogy to "practice" in a company made-up of knowledge workers?

    "Meetings" in a corporate setting are the equivalent of practice. Meetings imply collaboration because they require more than one person. Meetings are where perspective develops across teams, where information is shared and judgment is improved across individuals, where people learn the nuances in the capabilities (or limitations) of other individuals. Meetings, even if viewed as ad-hoc discussions between two individuals, are where better teams are ultimately created. And like practice in baseball, meetings are a manager's best tool to drive collaboration, to create higher performing teams, and ultimately to develop excellence in an organization.

    Salvatore Saieva

  4. Sal makes some good points from Sal that he elaborates on in his post:


    Meetings are a good place to make sure people speak up and hear other point of view. But true collaboration and most innovation is when 2-3 folks with different skills work together on specific challenges. Management can reinforce this by insuring larger meetings include people from different departments and encourage cross team follow-ups.


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About Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is President of StarCIO, a technology leadership company that guides organizations on building digital transformation core competencies. He is the author of Digital Trailblazer and the Amazon bestseller Driving Digital and speaks about agile planning, devops, data science, product management, and other digital transformation best practices. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, a digital transformation influencer, and has over 900 articles published at InfoWorld, CIO.com, his blog Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other sites. You can find him sharing new insights @NYIke on Twitter, his Driving Digital Standup YouTube channel, or during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.