Busting Silos: Adaptive Action and Network Exploration

For years, people have talked about breaking down silos to create different types of connections across systems. The hope is that this will solve some of our most wicked issues. In organizations you want people on the front lines to talk to the people in purchasing or payroll so they understand each others’ roles, find efficiencies, or eliminate redundancies. In communities different neighborhoods or social groups connect to increase understanding or to share resources. In government different agencies synchronize their work to provide services more easily or equitably. There are many reasons to step across those organizational or social boundaries, but it still seems hard. People step across boundaries, then they rebound into the old silos when you least expect it.

Busting Silos
Click Here to Download the Busting Silos Worksheet

In HSD, we believe one challenge that makes silo busting so difficult is that you don’t really have an alternative way to think about your systems. It’s hard to look at the current situation in new ways without feeling like you’re messing with something sacred or immutable. People are where they are because that’s what works. Or it’s what did work at some time. Those boundaries that describe the system serve a purpose, whether you are looking at departments or offices in an organization, social groups in a community, groups in a neighborhood, or any other “container” that bounds people together. In your organization, departments or offices often define how work gets done. In their jobs or communities, the containers may define how people see themselves and others. Sometimes those divisions indicate who has power and who doesn't. So how is it possible to think of a system--and not think about the structure you have always known? Try thinking of your relationships to others in the system as a network of connections and interactions that have particular meaning or purpose.

What is a network? It is nodes--people, ideas, groups--that are joined together by some sort of connecting exchange, like information, money, or energy. So the next time you’re stuck in a wicked issue that extends across the usual boundaries, try thinking of the context that surrounds your challenge as a network. See if that helps. Use the attached network-modeling tool to take steps to shift how you see your system.

Adaptive Action Using Simple Network Modeling

What? is the context surrounding your wicked issue?

  1. Describe the challenge you face and the context surrounding it.

    Say that you are experiencing patterns of distrust and competition in your work place. Describe the issue in the most objective and articulate way you can. “The need to compete around here makes people want to hoard their ideas and not share resources to solve common problems.”

  2. Put yourself in the middle and list the most critical nodes. Consider individuals or groups, ideas, or parts of the system, for instance, along with the functions or roles they serve in the situation. For each node, identify the products or services, information, resources, or other significant characteristics that differentiate it from the other nodes.

    In this example, you may list the following nodes that connect to you as a part of this issue:

    • Co-workers in your department
    • Supervisor who is in charge of each of you
    • Organizational policy about merit pay
    • Clients/customers who want your services
  3. Identify and label the connections that link those nodes to you and to each other. Use the Exchange Key to represent the ways the nodes are connected to each other.
    • Exchange Key –
      • Arrow points indicate direction of flow
        • One-way flowing in
        • One-way flowing out
        • Two-way flowing both ways
      • The line of the arrow indicates content of the exchange
        • Information – solid
        • Goods or services – dashed
        • Resources like money or time or energy – dotted
      • Color indicates intensity. You assign the values for the increments in your issue.
        • Red is Frequent
        • Blue is Regular
        • Green is Infrequent

For instance, the arrow from the policy to you would be solid, and one-way, as it represents information that comes to you with little or no way for you to influence it. The arrow between you and your supervisor might be two arrows. One arrow would be dotted to represent the time you spend working together, sharing information and time. The other might be one-way coming into you, representing the resources that are allotted to you. Exchanges between you and your colleagues can show the flow of work, for instance, or how you share information.

So What? does this picture tell you about your wicked issue?

          • Who or what else needs to be in (or out of) the network?
          • What connections might be hindering? What other or different connections might help?
          • What other goods, resources, or information might help? 
          • What alternatives exist for connections, and what might be the impact?
          • Where is the tension in the network?
          • What else can you learn from this picture of your network?

You may recognize the tension lies in the way the supervisor sets expectations. You may realize that the written policy says one thing, but the organizational culture shows other patterns. You may realize that you need to connect differently to other members of the team. Paying attention to where the tension is and where it originates will help you pinpoint options for action.

Now what? steps can you take to try something different to shift your wicked issue? What will you watch in the network to gauge your progress or success?

Tips and Traps for Using This Protocol:

          • The clearer you are about the challenge you face, the simpler it will be to identify the particular nodes and exchanges that are significant to the wicked issue.
          • Don’t try to model your whole world in one huge map. It’s just too massive to be of any help at all. Just map what’s significant to one particular challenge.
          • Even in the simpler map of what’s relevant to one particular challenge, don’t try to map every possible node or every possible connection. Just map those nodes that are significant in this particular challenge. If you are not sure, try mapping it and see if it seems important. You can always erase it later.
          • Ignore organizational or functional silos and just consider how each of those nodes relates to you and your wicked issue.
          • Remember to pay attention to how the nodes connect to each other as well as how they connect to you.
          • You don’t have to be “in charge” to shift some of the patterns that your network will reflect. Go ahead and do what you can--and begin to involve others as you can--to bring about a shift in how the nodes connect with each other and with you.
          • There is no right answer. Remember that what you are looking for needs to be true from your perspective, and it needs to point to helpful options for you to take to relieve your wicked issue. That’s what you seek.

So the next time you’re stuck, and silos may be part of the problem, think of the networks that cross those boundaries. Let me know how it goes.

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