Want Innovation? Ditch the Silos.

(Originally published on LinkedIn.)

Innovation. Buzzword of the day. We are all striving towards more innovation. We want more innovation in our schools, our classrooms, and across our districts. The problem is that innovation is not a program that can just be added in or layered onto existing district, school, or classroom cultures. Innovation emerges from a culture that fosters imagination and creativity. Unfortunately, district and school cultures that are overly bureaucratic, traditional, and silo-ed are not the kinds of cultures that foster imagination and creativity. At the very least, in order to create the type of culture that will lead to deep and meaningful innovation, we have to ditch the silos.

What are the silos?

Silos are departments, divisions, offices, and even schools which operate on their own, without sharing information or collaborating on initiatives, programs, improvement strategies, or other key activities. One problem with this structure is that the community and stakeholders don’t see the results of each individual unit of the school or district; they see the results of the whole and this becomes a reflection of the district as a whole. Another problem with this structure, which influences thoughts, behavior, and actions, is that it weakens the organizational ability to innovate on a large scale.

Silos include:

  • Campus-level grade level teams
  • Campus-level department teams
  • District-wide cohorts of coaches or instructional support personnel
  • District-level departments, divisions, or offices
  • Smaller teams within departments, divisions, or offices
  • C-suite teams that operate primarily in a top-down manner

How do silos limit innovation?

  • Inhibit collaboration & communication – two key components for creativity and innovation
  • Increase information isolation – departments are not fully aware of what other departments are doing
  • Create risk of duplication or redundancy
  • Reduce team spirit – silos foster “This is MY department/project,” “Stay in your own lane,” and ”That is not MY job” mentality
  • Promote group-think and stale ideas
  • Create inconsistency of vision, message, and decisions
  • Foster “blame game” when something goes wrong. Each department blames the other departments rather than working together to develop collaborative solutions to organizational problems.
  • Contribute to inefficiency – Waste of time and resources
  • Decrease staff morale and kill motivation

How can we eliminate the silos or silo-thinking?

  • Create a unified vision for core values, collaboration, communication, and teamwork. Model this from the top-down throughout the entire district.
  • For major initiatives, create cross-departmental teams or advisory panels.
  • Review organizational charts and look for redundancy in positions from one department to another. Consolidate or re-align resources to reduce such redundancies.
  • Promote inclusive work environments rather than exclusive environments.
  • Review hiring and ensure that hiring managers are selecting candidates from beyond their “friend pool” which too often results in too many like-minded people on one team which can limit fresh and diverse perspectives.
  • Maintain an open door policy across departments where everyone can reach out to anyone else in another department, without supervisor approval, to discuss ideas, brainstorm, and collaborate.
  • Create feedback loops or some sort of discussion platform where employees can share suggestions, recommendations, and ideas.
  • Create a structure for cross-departmental innovation incubation. Consider how time and space may be set aside for free-flowing brainstorming sessions that include employees from across departments or from across the district.
  • Create structure for and encourage listening to diverse perspectives. Model listening to and seeking to understand people who have different ideas or who disagree with your ideas.
  • Check egos and cease the need for control. Micro-management is not effective. Implement leadership coaching to eliminate this at all levels throughout the district.

What other techniques or strategies have been successful in your own school or district to reduce or fully eliminate silo-ed thinking and behaviors?