Silo working and career progression

This may be just me but in every large organisation I have worked in, and in every employee survey I have read, people complain about internal communication between departments and opportunities for career progression. I’ve not seen a survey where they aren’t among the lowest scores.

Possibly I’m just really bad at these things (although it has been true of places I have worked for as well as led). Possibly they are examples of areas where the needs of individuals simply conflict with the abilities of organisations – where we just can’t give people what they want, like we can’t pay everyone as much as they think they deserve.

If it is the former, I would love to know what other people are doing. If people in your place understand the work of other departments and are satisfied with their progression, please comment and start a debate.

If it is the latter, and these are typically intractable problems, then this implies two things. Firstly, that we need to reset expectations among our employees. Secondly, before you invest effort in an action plan to improve them, you better have something pretty spectacular in mind.

Solutions for these two challenges are therefore likely to be a combination of both honest conversations and bold schemes.

Silo working

Organisation and job design connects to cognitive load theory – there’s only so much information we can cope with at once, hence why we divide up work. But also that we can cope with more information and complexity if it fits within structures and schemes with meaning. We need silos.

This is the reason for my unfashionable belief that a traditional, hierarchical functional structure – if done well – is a simplest, natural and navigable organisational design. There is nothing inherently wrong with hierarchies and functions. They can be done badly of course. But there is no reason they should be inimical to communication or collaboration. About the only other person I can find arguing for this point of view is Elliot Jacques in Requisite Organisation. Collaboration is about behaviour and culture before it is about structure. And at least in a traditional structure people can figure out what goes where.

To make a functional hierarchy work you need to ensure:

  • That it is a hierarchy of perspective and decision making rather than status – you do not want deference or bureaucracy.
  • That job and department titles are as informative as possible.
  • That you have followed the logic of your organisation design to its conclusion, ironing out conflicts, compromises and ambiguities.

Within reason, there aren’t right and wrong organisational designs, but there are clear and unclear designs. Embrace your decision, including its downsides, in the name of maximum clarity. Organisation design is not a silver bullet. The cost of frequent change far outweighs the benefits of a supposedly more perfect structure.

With a clear structure in place, it is then mostly down to behaviour and culture. You cannot effectively force collaboration through committees and governance – although you will need a bare minimum of these. What you basically want is for someone in team A to pick up the phone to someone in team B as and when it is helpful.

You get this if they know and like the person in team B. You get this if people are rewarded for collaboration rather than selfishness. And you get this if people see how their work and that of other people fits together into the bigger picture.

We’re far from perfect but we try to trust people to choose the method of collaboration that works best for the need at hand. Our mantra is that you do your work as you think best, as long as you do it in a way that enables other people to succeed at theirs. We also practice maximum transparency so people have that bigger picture.

We don’t have incentive schemes that reward solo performance at the expense of collective success. In fact, we don’t have performance related pay at all, although I know that doesn’t work for every organisation. We do value social events; while agonising about the cost of gathering dispersed teams. And we are developing a scheme that encourages people to volunteer to do meaningful work (not shadowing or observing) in other departments. There are few better ways to understand each other than to work alongside each other.

After all that, people still rightly worry about silo working! To a certain extent, due to the need to compartmentalise, that’s the way it’s going to be.

Career progression

If your organisation is rapidly growing in headcount, this may not trouble you. Until the growth moderates, at which point it will come as a shock. For organisations in which growth does not manifest as more people or where growth is more modest, you are likely to get complaints about lack of career opportunities. Most organisations are pyramid in structure: there are simply fewer roles to promote people into; many are flatter than they used to be, reducing this further.

Bad solutions include: inventing grades and job titles; multiplying sub grades and distinctions (junior, senior, assistant, deputy…); making everyone a manager; tiny spans of control; making up jobs. Basically, anything that incurs a management debt to avoid confrontation.

We are experimenting with the following. Firstly, in terms of resetting, we are trying to be honest that we simply can’t offer a lot of progression through promotion. Instead, we want to offer progression through professional growth – the steady acquisition of valuable, accredited, externally recognised skills.

The ultimate expression of this would be to see ‘everyone as an apprentice’, with time dedicated to the ongoing pursuit of professional development. Like most organisations we lack the time and money to do this properly. So far. But we are also in the middle of a business process transformation with potentially large productivity gains. Some of those gains have been earmarked for expanding professional development time. That should make the transformation work more popular too.

When the time comes that you want increased responsibility and pay, we may have opportunities for you – and you will be well prepared for them – but we may not. In which case, you may want to seek opportunities outside the organisation with no hard feelings on either side. Indeed, we will keep you in our alumni network and welcome you and your new skills back should a suitable opportunity arise in time.

In order to increase the number of opportunities for promotion that do exist we have set ourselves the goal that half of all suitable jobs will be filled by internal applications. This strikes a balance between internal opportunity and fresh perspectives. By ‘suitable’ we mean roles which aren’t entry level or require specialist externally acquired skillsets (like qualified teacher status).

Given the importance of institutional and sector knowledge, I am increasingly convinced that internal promotion is sensible where possible. Five out of seven on our current executive team are internal appointments – although one had spent significant time in other organisations too.

I emphasise this is an ambition and a work in progress rather a realised achievement.

Again, despite all this, people still want more and faster career progression. It’s human nature to want more pay and responsibility. I certainly always did and still do. But we hope this will help people be comfortable with the inevitable comprises between personal and organisational needs.

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