Why Silo-Busting Teamwork Drives Your Innovating Engine

One of the biggest reasons many companies struggle to innovate is the barriers between different business units and the individuals who work in them. These barriers may be organizational, functional, cultural, or all three—but whatever form they take, they make it exceedingly difficult for people from marketing, sales, production, design, R&D, customer service, and other departments to work together creatively.

And that’s a big problem—because people can’t innovate without fresh thinking, which means escaping from the boxes of routine within which they normally live and work. Inter-departmental barriers turn functional teams into silos that find it hard to understand one another and work together . . . which only tends to make the boxes of daily routine more rigid and inescapable than usual.

In one sense, this problem is inevitable and unavoidable. To serve your current customers well with your existing products and services, you need a well-oiled execution engine. And managing an execution engine is about control, which generally demands layers of hierarchy, sophisticated control systems, and vertical silos defined around specific problems the organization must solve—design teams to craft new products, marketing and sales teams to promote the products, operational teams to produce the products, and so on. These controlling structures gradually discourage innovating behavior.

By contrast, the innovating engine is less about control and more about delegation, communication, collaboration, and team-building. Great innovating engines usually work along horizontal structures or teams defined around and focused on customers—either existing customers or potential future customers.

So your organization needs a parallel management structure, existing alongside the hierarchical structure of the execution engine, operating simultaneously, and involving most of the same people—but one that breaks down the siloed compartments and control systems in favor of open-ended teamwork.

Great innovating companies find their own ways of achieving this. For example, Kordsa, the Turkish maker of reinforcing materials that I study in my book, sends cross-disciplinary teams including people from various departments into the factories operated by their corporate customers. They literally camp out there for days at a time to observe what is happening and to talk with employees.

At one tire plant, a Kordsa team noticed that workers were struggling to safely unload rolls of reinforcing fabric from trucks. The team realized they were peeking at a problem the customer had never told them or complained about. Kordsa was able to remedy the problem by developing a simple, improved method for handling the rolls of fabric and training their customers to use it. They helped them reduce the resources needed for the task from 90 minutes and three employees to 12 minutes and a single worker. It’s a great example of how Kordsa has established itself as a differentiated supplier, capable of providing innovative solutions and services, not just commodity products.

Building and operating your company’s innovating engine isn’t just about sending around a memo urging people, “Innovate!” It also means taking concrete organizational and operational steps to break down the behavioral barriers that enforce routine, inside-the-box thinking. If you try to manage your innovating engine using methods and systems that work well for your execution engine, you are likely to be disappointed.

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