Any organization that survives and experiences sustained growth ultimately faces the issue of how to evolve its culture from lean start-up to established leader. Likewise, growth often means internal silos develop, sometimes for good reason.
Growth often means internal silos develop, sometimes for good reason.
Working in such an organization can lead to departments becoming isolated from each other. Think of how much of a challenge this creates when someone in one department can help someone in a separate department of the organization? For example, what if someone in accounting has an idea that will help someone in development?
Dozens of books and business case studies have been written about this very issue. Even the best, most-profitable plan or idea withers on the vine without a champion from leadership and a team's willingness to look outside their established patterns of doing business. Every business has its stories of thoughtful executives bringing employees from different divisions and locations together to consider cross-departmental ideas expressly. These ideas sound great until it comes time to figure out how the work is going to get done.
Trust, Freedom, and Responsibility
At my organization, we address this issue by making culture and cross-disciplinary communication critical components of our operations. Our leadership and teams continuously summarize our organizational culture as focused on three values: trust, freedom, and responsibility.
As there is no one correct definition of these values, the interpretation is left up to the employee:
- “Trust” means I can do it
- “Freedom” means I can decide how to do it
- “Responsibility” means I will do it
These values are interdependent. Remove one of these values, and the other two don't function properly.
Once a business grows past a specific size, maintaining the same decision-making process becomes impossible or impractical if the company wishes to grow. Building culture is not an easy or quick process. If you are thinking beyond the next quarterly report, a culture of growth and responsibility can become a virtuous circle for your organization.
A Culture of Growth
It’s more productive, and ultimately more profitable, to hire and empower team members who embrace a company's culture rather than forcing them to conform to artificial standards:
- Quality culture helps build a movement, not just a company. Culture is a strong differentiator between organizations.
- Winning culture helps ensure that a team and organization stay on track with its values; it’s the difference between talking and walking the walk.
- Excellent culture creates an atmosphere of growth and the “can-do” attitude.
Cross-disciplinary communication takes active effort. When our organization started in the 1990s, long before the more than 850 team members that currently work with us were on board, only a few team members were part of the organization. As you can imagine, during this time, it was easier for team members to share their ideas across the organization because there were fewer silos and barriers to communication. Everyone on the team understood they were in the same boat with the same goals, working for the same outcomes.
However, now that the company has several hundred more employees and contractors in more than a dozen countries worldwide, it is facing the expected new issues with growth, communication, and—of course—silos. We want our organizational culture to be genuine, experienced by every team member in every branch. In this regard, the organization provides a platform for all team members to share knowledge and start initiatives.
Organizations work best when team members can find and connect with each other regardless of their department, location, or country base. Unlike many organizations, we work toward the principle that every member of the team has the best intentions of everyone else in the organization and the organization itself. To remediate this, leaders must find ways to connect team members to make progress on meaningful work easier.
Recently, organizational leadership began to notice a drifting away from its principles about cross-disciplinary communication. They made their case to management and were empowered to form a team to help us reclaim our principles and find new ways of working. This focus became a global transition to Agile.
As part of their ongoing efforts to re-instate the most effective communications channel to grow the company, this team then put together an onsite, multi-disciplinary conference at an inspiring venue near our corporate headquarters, the Van Nelle Fabriek.
The Van Nelle Fabriek started as a flagship of Dutch industrial architecture and was the first daylight factory in Europe. A paragon of functionalism. A structure of concrete, not brick. With columns, not load-bearing walls. With its steel and glass facade and work floor bathed in natural light, the building was designed to energize. In 2002, the structure was renovated and transformed into a sustainable building. Rotterdam’s national design icon was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2014. Today, the Van Nelle Fabriek is a symbol of vitality and modernity—a legendary venue for events and presentations.
Our choosing this location for the team building shows our deliberate plans to ensure the training and event were considered of utmost importance, and it gave something extra to experience apart from the conference. The explicit goal of the conference was empowering all employees to share their knowledge and expertise with others. The implicit goal of the conference was to address any unnecessary silos that had developed within the company. The conference, now an annual event, includes more than 70 sessions about topics, such as “What is agile coaching,” “The service excellence maturity model,” “Using business data and reports,” and many others.
By noting that silos have their place in some situations, leadership understands that working in a more significant organization can lead to isolated employees and departments. However, leadership also realized that these "islands" don’t align easily or without executive leadership.
The conference sessions have helped tear down internal walls, resulting in more understanding among the team members from different disciplines and leading to increased communication. For instance, each department and branch have talent leads; however, your talent lead doesn’t have to be from your department. The main thing from this collaboration is that talent leads can work partly isolated, as well. Being together in a guild helps them to make uniform steps towards better guidance of the employee's growth.
Before the meetup, there was no easy way for leads to communicate about the common and unique problems they face. Additionally, a session at the conference led to the creation of a “talent lead guild.” This guild exchanges best practices in terms of common issues and encourages discussion about newly arising or pressing concerns. This guild helps ensure that all employees get the best resources available to transform their qualities into strengths.
Ultimately, the organizational leadership wants its team members to think creatively and to take responsibility for their clients and the well-being of the company. By determining its three primary corporate values, we're poised to move ahead in a unified fashion, removing barriers to cross-disciplinary communication.
Any organization seeking long-term sustained growth must evolve its culture if it wants to move from lean start-up to established leader. This may mean that internal silos develop, but often for good reason.
Ron van Haasteren is the international culture strategist for TOPdesk worldwide. As a passionate promotor, Ron strives to inspire service management professionals to focus on how a great company culture adds value, by engaging employees, and helping them deliver service excellence in return. Ron’s also an expert on how to keep the company culture alive and get the core values known by all employees.