Collaboration is power. Learn why working as a team can be more efficient and how to make sure you put together a strong team that works towards the same goal.
Human beings have been collaborative since the dawn of time. But in today’s business world, it is interesting that working in silos is common practice. This has been aided by an increase in hyperspecialization, a term that refers to the erasure of “average jobs” with a shift toward highly technical, individualized skill sets. Generalists are becoming more and more rare as the engineers of today acquire increasingly specialized skills. The result is highly skilled engineers who are used to thinking “inside the box,” excelling in their specific area of expertise.
However, hyperspecialization doesn’t always work. By not looking or thinking horizontally, individual teams within an organization can repeat efforts by working on the same problems or by choosing different technologies for similar areas.
When I started as CTO of Chegg, I strived to tackle this vertical way of thinking. As a leader in the online educational learning space, Chegg has a multitude of growing innovative products. Teams were laser-focused on what they were building, scrambling to help students learn. I wanted to get them to think more broadly and across teams — to think horizontally when vertically had worked best for them.
I began asking questions like, How can we cultivate a “one team” culture? What about the sharing of best practices, technology and processes?
The following is how I approached this multilevel problem.
Create Trust Through Transparency
Gone are the antiquated days in which leadership would simply state, “Do as I say without question.” Your employees require transparency for trust, and they must trust you for your team to work, especially if you are looking to address the problems from within.
I immediately began to make my actions as transparent as possible. We created an overall vision and strategy for the engineering organization — people, process and technology — and shared it again and again. Our engineers were part of the discussions and gave input.
It is important to make teams feel like they are a part of the plan and own it. We are a very distributed team, so we needed to travel between locations to ensure everyone felt included in the transformation process. As we addressed big issues, we linked the resolutions back to the overall plan.
Trust and transparency with business partners is equally important. Don’t just collaborate within engineering. Collaborate across the larger organization as well. Be transparent about your goals and how they will help the business as a whole. Gaining your employees and partners’ trust by creating a dynamic where everyone is working together on innovative solutions will lead to unprecedented engagement in your teams.
Creating an overall vision and goal, being transparent and getting feedback allow the organization to identify with a direction that is larger than just that of a product or group of products. It helps everyone understand the bigger picture and their role in getting to it.
Encourage Employees To Come Out Of Their Boxes
As we worked on team trust and engagement, we started to encourage teams to think outside their silos. One of the things I’d noticed about our engineering culture was that work often went top down. A manager would relay to the employee what needed to be done. The employee went above and beyond to tackle this issue, and, once completed, they moved to the next task. Sometimes a team member would create something that could be shared and utilized across many teams. However, being so deep in their silos, this information was not shared beyond their immediate co-workers or team members. Conversely, teams would also recreate solutions that already existed in other teams. This all comes down to a lack of horizontal communication.
No team can improve its processes if people aren’t sharing their solutions.
To tackle this problem, we pushed the idea of a “one engineering” culture and the importance of collaborating on cross-functional issues. We created cross-functional working groups to tackle the big problems. We created forums for sharing and encouraged people to talk about company problems instead of product or functional area problems.
We created architecture and program management functions across teams to facilitate this even more. By acknowledging a particular employee or team used their skills to address a problem and solve it cross-functionally, we were recognizing them and empowering them to share their insights with other engineering teams.
This encouragement and shared knowledge helps engineering teams move away from a hierarchical organization. Instead, they move toward “matrixed” environments where employees also work across multiple teams on cross-functional initiatives and with team members who may report to different managers. The more matrixed employees are, the more likely they are to prefer collaboration, which increases creativity, decision making and productivity.
Keep The Doors Open And The Silos Closed
It’s not easy to maintain this type of environment. Silos can come back, given work demands and deadlines. In summary, here’s what to remember to keep the doors open and the silos closed:
- Transparency creates trust. Keep being transparent as new initiatives and processes pop up, especially with new strategies, products or product innovations.
- Use your culture to create cross-team initiatives. Remind your team of the company’s mission. This will embolden them to think outside of their boxes for betterment across the board.
- Continue to partner with your partners. An engaged leader builds an engaged team. As processes improve, make sure to continue finding ways to be a better leader by nurturing existing partnerships and looking to create new ones.
Breaking down silos is hard, especially if that has brought “success.” By using the tools above, you can get your specialized workers to communicate together and build the collaboration your organization needs.