If you’ve been in the association world for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced the silo mentality that exists in many organizations. Although some associations have found ways to succeed despite a siloed structure, the vast majority are limiting their true potential and impact by continuing to rest in the status quo.

What if I were to tell you there is a way to bring about organizational transformation without any talk of cultural change or killing off the silos? Would you be willing to step outside the box and be a force for change in your organization?

MAKING CHANGE – WITHOUT TALKING ABOUT IT

At my two previous associations, I have led and participated in technology projects that have laid the foundation for organizational change. When I was at NAFSA: Association for International Education, I led a cross-divisional and functional team of 15 to upgrade our AMS; a large undertaking for an organization of more than 80 staff members. Prior to the AMS upgrade, I was a member of a small team tasked with redesigning the website, based both on our mission and on how we wanted users to interact with it. By focusing on the mission we were able to re-construct the site from one based on a leadership structure, to one that reflects how users actually engage with the site. This translated into a platform in which different departments’ content was integrated and assimilated, and spread throughout the site based on users’ needs rather than the concerns of those who created or owned the content.

Each department nominated one individual to serve on a Strategic Advisory Group (SAG). There were no requirements related to experience with the AMS; only that the individual be willing to participate fully and serve as a liaison between the SAG and his/her department when needed. Before we even started talking about any of the details, we sat down as a group and went through a process that said, “If we were successful beyond our wildest dreams, what would this look like?” This big picture visioning set the tone and allowed us as a group to come up with goals and present them to management. The bulk of the goals were externally focused on the user experience, and they were referred to throughout the project to help keep us on track. Often when new ideas or peripheral items came up we would ask ourselves, “does this item support, or is it related to, one of our goals?” before allowing ourselves to be sidetracked with discussion.

Another key piece of the process that we underwent before having to make tough decisions, was to develop a decision-making tree that could be used to determine whether a customization was warranted and how customizations were prioritized. Interestingly, dedicating time to sitting and developing this decision-making tree as a group meant that we never actually had to use it. As tough decisions came up, instead of people fighting from their silo’s perspective, they were making decisions based on the goals that we outlined as a group for the organization, which translated into what is best for the user.

As a result of the SAG’s work over the year, people’s thinking slowly transitioned from a commitment to protecting their individual department’s stakes, and a determination to stand their own ground, to a process that put the organization as a whole first.

SHIFTING ATTITUDES AND BUILDING TRUST

Throughout the process, I would blame the limitations of the technology (that didn’t really exist) as a way to begin conversations related to our business practices and processes. This environment made other members of the SAG feel comfortable, and encouraged them to ask those all-important, reflective, “why do we do it this way?” questions. Since we had spent a lot of prep time building a culture of trust and focusing on our mutual, pre-defined goals, people were able to provide the background logic for decisions and processes. They could then work openly with other members of the SAG to determine if that logic/process still made sense – rather than feeling under attack and responding in kind.

One of the real eye-openers occurred when we had each member of the SAG work with their departments to determine all of the data sources maintained by individual departments that weren’t incorporated or linked to the database. We called it the “world of data”. There were 100 plus major databases across the organization. So to promote the idea of one database we spent a significant amount of time determining what fields would need to be added to the AMS, what reports would be needed by the departments if the data was incorporated, what items should remain outside but potentially be linked to the AMS, and what new correlations and data could be provided for the departments if they integrated their information, in addition to demonstrating to them that their data would be more current. Once the synergies for triangulation became apparent everyone was on board.

Out of these large scale technology projects, a new cross-functional department was created that was responsible for creating and ensuring cohesive messaging, carrying forward the organizational changes that began with the website redesign and the AMS upgrade throughout the whole organization. To continue the organizational change, members of this team had as their own individual goals the other departments’ goals. They had a vested interest in making sure the other departments were satisfied and reaching their goals, which generated new collegial relationships that hadn’t existed before. To help build trust between the departments, data related to departmental goals and benchmarks was freely shared and all of the various communication vehicles (web, marketing, social media, etc.) were represented in the meeting. Departments thus only had to meet once, and a comprehensive strategy could be put into place for each department that approached their individual needs from a pan-organizational approach to allow for synergies and greater opportunities.

By creating a culture of transparency – and without having to be asked – we got a lot more flexibility from the departments, who were more willing to respect the opinions of the communications experts. The new department provided other departments with at least two options on how to achieve their goals, outlining the strengthens and weaknesses of each approach, which increased departmental buy-in even more. You need to hear what people are saying, and let them feel they have a choice: nobody wants to feel trapped.

MY KEY TAKEAWAYS

Having now replicated this approach with other organizations, it has become clear that this work shouldn’t be explicitly described in terms of breaking down silos or bringing about cultural change, because people automatically fear change to their current world. I have had success in making change by using technology and data to get people into an unfamiliar zone: when they don’t necessarily have expertise in these areas, they have to be a little more willing to engage in a conversation. Through that process I have found it possible to shift and move people and their perspectives.

The other important takeaway from these projects is that data is your friend. Get out of the pattern of talking about tasks. Rather, talk in terms of desired outcomes, then develop a strategy that can be evaluated by various metrics to determine success. When your proposed results are considered based on the data, you open yourself up to a variety of options that might more effectively achieve the goal. At the end of the day, what we all want is impact, so once you are able to demonstrate that, you are well on your way to bringing about lasting change for your organization.

As I am sitting here in Tanzania preparing to hike Mount Kilimanjaro and volunteer with local NGOs, I am constantly reminded about how great the need is for the work we do. There is too much to be done to limit our potential by staying only within our silos. By establishing common goals, and shifting attitudes and perspectives from those that are trapped within individual departmental demands, the silos will tear down themselves.

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