Separation Anxiety: Collaborate to Innovate

by Edgar Wilson

The assembly-line approach to production is not only found in factories. Assembling teams of workers into highly specialized areas of focus can certainly bring efficiency to projects and organizations—but it can also hamper creativity, collaboration, and innovative thinking.

Hyper-specialization can be efficient when it enables individuals and teams to focus on their specific roles, without distraction. But it can also contribute to a silo mentality, where that focus becomes a wall blocking out all other considerations, roles, teams, and perspective. Those kinds of considerations can play an important role in fostering innovation, and silo thinking can be poisonous in several ways.

Secret Secrets

America’s military leaders discovered that a commitment to secrecy—even internally withholding information from different leaders and departments—can actually be more harmful than constructive. In businesses and other organizations, silo thinking can foster a resistance to knowledge sharing. Essentially, an attitude that says, this isn’t their problem, and it isn’t their area of focus—why should they need to know?

As the military lesson demonstrated, “need to know” approaches to knowledge sharing are based on several assumptions that may not hold up under scrutiny. In terms of innovative problem-solving, treating specialized knowledge or perspectives as “need to know” can prevent fresh perspectives or alternative approaches from being conceived, shared, and implemented. Innovation is impossible in an environment of exclusion.

Collective Risk

Sharon Jagpal, a professor at Rutger’s School of Business, encourages people to challenge assumptions when it comes to risk. Conventional wisdom holds that different departments face—and must mitigate—different risks. Professor Jagpal delivered a speech explaining how this misses a seemingly obvious fact: if all these departments fit within a single organization, then all risk applies to that organization. So why isolate different approaches to risk-management?

Again, human resources—the creativity, perspective, and intellectual capital within an organization—are not necessarily efficient just because they are specialized and focused. Questioning assumptions about responsibility, exposure, and who is most capable of addressing risk (or any other strategic challenge) helps break people out of their silo thinking and make collaboration a habit, rather than a chore. Emphasizing that all risk is collective encourages all stakeholders to contribute to solutions and strategies.

Problems in Accounting

While a philosophy of “not their problem” creates an environment where only those who “need to know” are privy to important information, the opposite attitude, “not my problem,” creates a vacuum of accountability. People whose minds are inside the silo use their focus, role, job description (or that of others) to isolate themselves from investing in any task or responsibility other than their own.

Without a broader investment and sense of shared ownership in the projects and organization, people are poorly positioned to think and act innovatively. Strict adherence to a narrow professional purpose puts up walls to collaboration instead of bridges, and harms company culture in the name of lame notions of efficiency. No one wants to be accountable for failure, underperforming, or coming up with bad ideas. Making people care more about finding solutions and contributing to progress than shielding themselves from accountability can fight this form of the silo mentality.

Engagement is not just top-down, but must be lateral, uniting different types of professionals, thinkers, and workers behind shared goals. Having expertise should not excuse anyone from shutting out their peers, or excluding themselves from contributing to innovation. This is as much a cultural priority as a leadership initiative.

image credit: Sharon Sinclair

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Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant. He can be reached on Twitter.

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