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InfoQ Homepage Articles How Space Shapes Collaboration: Using Anthropology to Break Silos

How Space Shapes Collaboration: Using Anthropology to Break Silos

Key Takeaways

  • Think about your office space from an anthropological point of view: does it generate competition or collaboration between tribes?
  • Cultural analysis can tell us how aligned the team is with the company’s culture. The internal culture of companies can be analyzed in the same way as tribes are analyzed.
  • Agile principles not only represent a philosophy, but also a framework that actively promotes collaboration. It is impossible to sustain silos for long if there is a culture of active collaboration within the company.
  • People are constantly making mistakes, especially in innovation environments. If we can make people feel safe, protected and like they can count on their team, we are encouraging the development of new ideas and personal growth.
  • Innovate and evolve, but don't forget what promise your company has to fulfil. If you have doubts, go back to the origins.

Every day thousands of software companies strive to keep innovating and changing the rules of the market; a race for competitiveness and cutting-edge technology that always surprises us with new advances and products.

However, these large companies are made of people who, unlike smartphones, personal computers or smart watches, have not evolved as much in recent years. In this article, we propose an analysis of workspaces from anthropology with the aim of solving one of the most common problems: the appearance of silos instead of a culture of collaboration.

How places shape our behavior

The human being, like any other animal, builds its intelligence from the way it experiences the world. The senses and the information we collect from these experiences help us to adapt to various situations in order to survive. So adapting to the context in which we move is not something new, it is something we have always done. The interesting thing is how this adaptation works in more complex spaces and situations. It is no longer about adapting to the jungle or the desert, but about how we should behave in a meeting room, an airport, or a rock concert.

On the one hand, we must take into account the physical aspects, the temperature, the light, the humidity, how big the space is in which we can move ... but we must also add cultural aspects of that space and that specific situation.

For example, does this space have specific rules that must be followed? Is there a person or persons who play a special role? What kind of conduct is expected from us in that place?

The places we inhabit, where we work or through which we travel have a series of characteristics that affect the way we experience them. For example, the lighting, the spatial arrangement, the materials and furniture that surround us, the rules that have been established for that specific space, etc.

Architects and interior designers study this from design, while sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists do the same from human experience.

There are examples of very interesting spaces, like libraries, where we keep quiet and try not to disturb other people. The town squares, which become meeting places and social life. Or, for example, in places of worship such as churches, even an atheist feels invited for a moment of introspection.

Places are loaded with cultural meaning and dictate how to behave.

A cultural view on agile

Cultural analysis can tell us how aligned the team is with the company’s culture. If the rules are followed, the roles are carried out with determination and the rituals help effectively to reinforce the bonds between the members. For example, some interesting elements that are often loaded with cultural significance in offices include:

  • Spaces: the coffee machine corner. It is the closest thing to a confessional. Most of the rumors start or spread here. And yet, it is also considered the safest space to ask for or give feedback, an essential practice to promote the growth of people within an organization.
  • Objects: the annual report. It is loaded with cultural significance. From an anthropological point of view, it acts as a "sacred" document within a company. All employees think about it often, especially at the end of the year. And growth forecasts serve as the "oracle" that must be met.
  • Norms: in most software companies, the dress code has been relaxed. Ties and blazers have been replaced by T-shirts and sneakers. However, other internal rules are still in force, despite the fact that the social context has changed a lot in recent years. For example, why do we keep working from 9:00 to 18:00? Why don't we allow employees to organize time with their teams as they see fit? Is the work schedule a real necessity or an inheritance from the time when most of the work happened in factories? In our company, would it be possible to let employees organize their schedule? What benefits would it represent for the job? Would it help us attract talent?

These and other questions are what we analyze from an anthropological point of view. At the end of the day, they are nothing more than aspects of the internal culture of the companies. They can be analyzed in the same way as tribes are analyzed.

In terms of Agile, one of the most interesting roles to look at is Scrum Master. He/she is the "spirit guide" of the team. His/her main task is to help them continue to grow as individuals but also as a team. He/she helps reinforce emotional ties between team members, facilitates meetings, and makes sure to remove any obstacles that may get in the way of the team's mission. In some respects, it seems like a modern shaman within the software industry.

From "mortal enemies" to best buddies

To enable collaboration, my suggestion is to begin with eliminating architectural barriers; that there be no corridors that separate areas, screens, stairs or any other barrier. No matter how small the barrier may seem, it can become a symbolic border that is difficult to remove.

One of the clients we've worked for wanted two departments to start collaborating more actively. However, there were stairs separating the two of them and no area in which they found themselves spontaneously. Even the recreational areas and canteens were far away. This seems like a trivial detail, but it is very relevant. In order for collaboration to take place, it is necessary to promote contacts that are also spontaneous and not only planned for a certain meeting.

For example, one of the clients in the fashion industry that I have worked for had only one coffee machine per floor, despite being a huge building. In this way, they managed to get employees to coincide several times a day and to generate informal conversations. It seems an inefficient measure because small queues were set up in front of the machine every morning, but in the long run it proved to be a very effective resource for people to get to know each other better.

In general, office space or architecture must be considered one of the aspects that can improve or hinder collaboration, but it is not the only one. Ideally, there should be a good mix of rituals, spaces, and rules that make people's work easier and make them feel connected to their co-workers.

Another wonderful example is a ritual from a London marketing agency. Every Friday a different person on the staff pushed a trolley filled with wine and beer offering one glass of something to each employee. The person had to introduce themselves if they were new and ask the colleague how their week had gone. From the boss to the doorman, everyone had to push the trolley at some point. It was a good ritual for team-bonding.

Break down silos in organizations

I'm afraid there is no easy answer to breaking down silos in organizations. Each industry and each company has internal dynamics that are necessary to know well before proposing any solution. Breaking silos among the employees of a Sheffield steel company has nothing to do with breaking silos among the marketing teams of a Barcelona fashion company. My advice is to be critical of those articles, publications and gurus who consider they have an answer to all problems. It's like trying to simplify problems that are actually complex.

My suggestion for companies that want to break silos is to start observing and listening to customers and employees. Perhaps this way they can better understand the problem and come up with a concrete solution. There are consulting agencies like mine that help companies in this task, but the first step must always be taken from within the company. You have to be willing to change things.

An example of a change process that we helped launch:

A couple of years ago we worked with a company that was dedicated to motorhome spare parts. They contacted us because there was a significant problem between the departments that provided customer service and the logistics areas. The company wanted to reduce its lead times and provide excellent customer service, but both departments seemed to have an open war between them.

It was a very challenging project - there were daily conflicts between one and the other. However, the management was committed to the change; they went to all the meetings, workshops and interviews. Besides, they made decisions that in many cases were complicated, such as reducing the size of a department and therefore its power within the company. Most importantly, managers accepted that no change is lasting if it is not supported from above and at the same time reinforced every day from below by collaboration between teams.

In the software industry, the same pattern is often repeated: collaboration between departments or areas only occurs at the management level. This reinforces the symbolic idea of being in a silo, especially for workers who do not have any communication with other departments.

However, company culture and framework can significantly lower barriers, even in virtual space. Companies like Accenture, Cisco or Lego work with Scaled Agile (SAFe). This framework actively facilitates collaboration, at the team level, at the role level, and also between colleagues on different teams. I've been working with SAFe for the last year and using Microsoft Team for communications, and I can say that despite not being perfect, it works, dramatically improving collaboration.

A very interesting example is the synchronization ceremonies: Scrum of scrums for Scrum masters, Product Sync for product owners and product managers and Tech Sync for developers. These types of meetings help to identify dependencies between teams and allow the emergence of new ideas and innovation.

For example, in a fashion company we were working with, the need arose to launch a microsite for a special collection that would last only two weeks. Unfortunately, the company's technological platform was slow, it had a lot of legacy after 10 years of selling on the internet. On other occasions, before implementing SAFe, the technology department would have answered that it was impossible without having planned the project properly and passing all the security and testing processes. However, after implementing SAFe, and improving collaboration at all levels, we began to see alternative solutions. For example, ephemeral pages with the launch collection that served as an exhibitor while the transactions took place on the main page. Solutions like this require a lot of goodwill on the part of product, marketing, and technology. Before the switch to SAFe, every interdepartmental meeting was like a risk game.

The Agile philosophy is highly oriented to deliver value while taking care of the well-being of employees. One of the phrases that is heard the most is: how can I help? From an anthropological point of view, it is impossible to sustain silos for long if there is a culture of active collaboration within the company.

However, agile is not the key to success. We have worked with companies that claimed to have implemented Agile but had a zero collaboration policy.

This is the case of one of the largest electricity companies in Spain. IT departments were working with some of the Agile artefacts, the same roles, sprints, Scrum methodology, etc. However, these IT departments had developed a tool that somehow helped to control the sales force and created an absurd competition between colleagues. There was no collaboration of any kind and the work from the technology area not only reinforced the silos within the company, but also the rivalries between colleagues in the sales area.

For us it was a failure; we identified the problem but we were unable to get the company to take the results of the investigation and commit to internal change.

Facilitate collaboration in teams

Changing the culture of the company. I believe that in this, agile is a work philosophy that combines humanism and productive efficiency. It focuses on the delivery of value but the mediums are human values such as respect, transparency and trust. People are constantly making mistakes, especially in innovation environments where they always start from scratch. However, if we can make people feel safe, protected and that they can count on their team, we are encouraging the development of new ideas, and personal growth.

One very interesting example comes from visualization. It is key to understand the work that another person is doing to want to collaborate with them. People help where they think they can contribute. In one of the projects we work with SAFe, the framework developed from the principles of agility for large companies. And one of the things that we find that generates more spontaneous collaboration is the Program Board. It is like a kanban where the entire organization, product owners, developers, Scrum Masters, etc., can see at a glance what each team in the organization is going to work on.

Example: if I know that you are going to work on the main menu of our ecommerce section and I have been working on it in the past, it is more than likely that I will offer my help and my experience. However, there must be mechanisms within the organization that allow for the asking and giving of such help, e.g. specific meetings such as Product Sync or Scrum of Scrums, it must be one more practice of the company’s culture.

For example, in SAFe a common practice is that if one of the teams finishes the user stories it had planned for that sprint or iteration faster than the rest, it offers to help those who have possible carryovers. In this way, internal competitions are eliminated and a message of "we are all in this together" is promoted.

Effective change comes from foundations

Effective change must be based on an understanding from within the company and be part of it. In one of the projects I participated in a couple of years ago, they asked us to help a media firm transform digitally. To do this, we spent a lot of time investigating how the company had emerged, on what mission it was founded and what was expected of it at this time. That is, what had been its starting point and what was the real challenge it faced today.

We realized that the company had been founded to generate social cohesion in its region. That aspect had made it relevant in the past and if we wanted to design a relevant change in the digital field, we had to continue with that mission in mind. That way of looking at things was the key to success.

In all companies there are explorers and colonists. Scouting employees are those who embrace change without issue, sometimes too impulsively, without thinking about the consequences of the change. The settlers, on the other hand, are people who seek stability in a systematic way. They generate security but can become an obstacle when the company needs to transform. With change strategies based on the company's own mission, both explorers and settlers feel understood and accompanied. There are changes, yes, but they do not lose sight of what the company is and what it represents.

Another relevant example of coming back to foundations was what Angela Ahrendts did when she became Burberry’s CEO- she went back to core products: the Burberry trench coats. Sometimes we think that the effective change comes from something totally new but, in my experience, it’s usually a mix between remembering the original purpose and the use of new techniques and methods.

One of the most interesting examples in the technology industry is Nokia. Nobody talks about them anymore because over the years they have focused more on large-scale telecommunications and business services than on the end customer. Yet they remain true to their most widespread message. They keep connecting people. And that is the goal for which all members of the company work. It doesn't matter how reluctant they are to change. If these changes are aligned with the company's historical mission, their reluctance will be much less.

Designing agile environments

I think the most important lesson (in agile or any other framework) is that any change has to be respectful of people and their emotions. This is only accomplished by listening to people and asking what they need. There is a very interesting example from an architecture studio called Lacaton y Vassal. They were hired to remodel a square, the Leon Aucoc square in Bordeaux. They did something "revolutionary". They observed the space, they asked the neighbors what they thought of the square and then they did nothing. If the neighbors liked the square as it was, why should they change it?

That’s the key: if you want to improve something the first step is to analyze the current situation, then how you can make a relevant and significant change.

Some last recommendations to break silos in your company:

  • Foster an internal culture of collaboration. The Agile philosophy and its application in SAFe can be a good foothold if you are part of a large company.
  • Analyze the workspace and assess physical boundaries. Do they facilitate thinking or just separate teams? If the answer is the second, you need to redesign the workspace.
  • Investigate which roles the silos benefit. It is possible that they are performing tasks that only serve to maintain the silos themselves and not to improve the competitiveness of the company.
  • Before making changes, analyze the situation. Are those changes necessary? Are they respectful of what employees need? Are they aligned with the mission of the company?

About the Author

Patricia Salgado graduated in sociology and market research, and during her professional career, she has been lucky to work for brands such as Repsol, Mahou, McDonald’s, Docker’s, Levi’s, and Nike. Her work has been focused on digital analysis and anthropology. Salgado is a partner of a consulting firm (The Walker Fieldnotes o El Viaje de Walker) that uses Anthropology to solve business problems and she is also a product owner in the travel industry.

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