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Approaches and Techniques to Break Down Silos: Learnings from QCon New York

At QCon New York 2023 Emily Webber presented Bridging Silos and Overcoming Collaboration Antipatterns in Multidisciplinary Organisations, where she showed a worrying trend in the industry of specialisation and silos at the expense of collaboration, shared responsibility, and valuable outcomes. She shared some approaches and techniques to break silos down to work together better.

Webber started her talk by asking the audience to imagine what the best team can look like, having all the roles, and expertise, collaborating toward the outcome, with shared responsibility and great working relationships, and the ability to learn and try out new things. The question is, is that true for you, or for anyone? she asked.

Nowadays the ideal is to have specialists working together to create valuable outcomes. Why can’t we all just get along, Webber questioned. She mentioned three collaboration anti-patterns that she has observed in her work:

  • One role across many teams
  • Product vs engineering wars
  • X-led

An example of one role across many teams would be a designer who works in two teams. The designer can’t be in the stand-ups or retrospectives of both teams. Then there’s another team that needs a designer, and the work is split into three teams.

The designer doesn’t have enough time for any of the teams, and no headspace to dedicate any thinking time to the teams. Working on multiple teams, hours are wasted on context switching, Webber mentioned.

With product vs engineering, we have an organisation that has split itself into two main areas, product and technology. Communication is primarily done through the hierarchy. This can lead to "product" making the decisions and "engineering" building the thing – the opposite of what we want, Webber said.

The third antipattern is X-led, where x can be user, design, product, etc. Being too focused on one aspect like engineering-led can lead to building stuff and getting it out there, where it doesn’t matter if it’s the right or wrong thing, Webber mentioned.

Another example Webber mentioned is a product-led organisation. This can create a hierarchy where product managers are making all decisions in a silo and put distance between teams, she said.

Webber mentioned some of the problems that the above anti-patterns can lead to:

  • One group holds the power
  • Reinforcing professional protectionism
  • In-team silos

When there are silos or hierarchies in the team, work is handed off between roles, collaboration is minimal, and it erodes empathy between members, Webber said.

Webber mentioned that different domains, with experiences and views of the world, can bring diversity to solutions, making them more rounded. She quoted Tom Wujec:

When people work together under the right circumstances, group models are much better than individual models.

We have opportunities to counteract the silos and collaborate across boundaries. Webber suggested creating enabling organisational structures, resulting in "one team" at all levels, taking collaborative decisions. Between the different levels, approaches should be aligned, and insights and strategies should be communicated, she suggested.

A multidisciplinary team has all the roles needed to design, plan, deliver, deploy, and iterate a product or service, Webber mentioned. People collaborate together daily towards a shared outcome, where they may include people from outside the technology space to bring in their knowledge.

People are not interchangeable, Webber argued. She suggested embracing that we all have a unique set of knowledge, skills, and experience. Instead of using I-shaped or PI-shaped, people tend to be more broken comb-shaped having broad generic skills and multiple specialisms with different levels of depth.

Webber emphasised that most people do not have a linear career path. She suggested embracing squiggling careers and broken-comb skills and capabilities. Look outside your current role, discipline, and domain to find what inspires you and bring that to your work and your team, Webber concluded.

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