Digital Innovation Hinges on Breaking Down Your Organizational Silos

Wayne Cuervo

Wayne Cuervo

Wednesday, July 13th, 2022

A Month of Innovation:


We know “Breaking down silos” is a pretty clichéd phrase. And yet, there’s a reason you hear the term used so often. As much as we might be tired of talking about silos, the fact is that they remain a major barrier to digital innovation for many businesses.

After all, traditional business structures – which organize employees into insular teams based on their business function – are hardly designed to foster a culture of innovation. Your employees can’t cross-pollinate ideas or share insights very well when they spend their days surrounded only by people who do and think the same things as them all day long.

Even when teams do overlap – when one department collaborates with another on a project – there is no guarantee that the silos won’t disappear. By default, each team will tend to remain focused on its own task, which means employees gain little insight into what the other team is doing or what their needs are.

As for management’s part, they typically just want everyone to do their job. Indeed, many managers and executives are primed to discourage employees from thinking about what others are doing, as they worry that it will lead to toes being stepped on, or loss of focus on their own deliverables.

All of the above is to say that silos are real, and that they are a real hindrance to innovation. If you want to innovate, you need to develop an active strategy for encouraging employees to innovate.

Digital innovation begins at the bottom

To understand why, it’s helpful to think about what digital innovation in business actually looks like. Typically, it’s a bottom-up rather than top-down initiative. People within the organization innovate by developing good ideas, sharing them with colleagues and working to implement them.

Management certainly has a role to play in this process. It needs to support the culture of developing and sharing ideas and bold bets. This starts by enabling employees to work with different teams, even if there’s not always a direct relationship between the business functions performed by each team.

Ultimately, management’s approach should be to facilitate cross-team engagement, then support whichever good ideas come out of it. Innovation is not something that can be imposed from higher up the organizational ladder. It’s something that comes from the bottom up. It results in great ideas like the Esplanade theater in Singapore, whose biomimetic design (notice how it looks like a durian fruit) was the result of collective thinking by a variety of stakeholders, not singular, top-down directives by a manager/management team.

Digital innovation as a team sport

To expand on this point, let’s think about how the business functions, in a sense, as a sports team.

Just as every sports team has multiple players – for instance, a quarterback, running back, kicker and so on, in the case of American football – every business has multiple units and team members – sales people, marketers, product developers, customer relations managers and so on. And if any one member of the team fails to do his or her job, the team suffers collectively.

In other words, the running back can’t move the ball down the field if the quarterback doesn’t initiate the play effectively. In the same way, your sales team can’t sell effectively if product designers fail to create designs that customers actually want – and they can’t be sure what customers want if they don’t receive feedback and insights from sales and CRM leads, who actually interact with customers.

This is why the various stakeholders within every business need to think of the collective. Each stakeholder must know what others are doing, and, crucially, which major challenges other teams face. With that insight, every stakeholder in the business will be in a position to come up with solutions to other team members’ challenges. That’s what breeds digital innovation in businesses.

Ultimately, when your business operates as a well-trained, well-disciplined team, you get better overall performance not just because each unit knows how to function more effectively alongside the others, but also because the business will generate new ideas more readily. It won’t just get better at practicing existing plays; it will come up with brand-new plays which otherwise would have been inconceivable.

Getting buy-in for digital innovation in business

Of course, it’s easy to talk about collaboration and de-siloing at a high level. Where things get challenging is actually enabling these changes “on the ground.”

To help bridge that gap, start by clearly defining what digital innovation means in your business and why it’s important. You want every member of the business to recognize that digital innovation is critical for sustaining continuous improvement over time, and remaining competitive in an ever-shifting market.

Business leaders should also ensure that everyone feels qualified and supported when introducing new ideas. Make it clear that every idea is valid, even if it’s never implemented or doesn’t turn out to be successful.

Finally, employees must be encouraged to think of innovation as a way to improve outcomes for the company as a whole, not their individual business units. They must recognize that helping other teams can help them and, by extension, the overall business. When stakeholders are out to advance the business’s interests instead of their individual interests, innovation thrives.

Conclusion

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Culture is the foundation of digital innovation success. You can’t break down the silos that inhibit digital innovation if you lack a culture of collaboration, experimentation and exploration.

Learn about how Cisco’s ET&I initiative lays the foundation for a culture of innovation in cloud native security and beyond.

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