Instead of relying on the silo metaphor to describe the ineffectiveness of how we work together in organisations, let’s rather see how we participate in ‘worlds’ that can be bridged. Shifting the metaphor means we let go of the desire to ‘break down’ barriers, choosing a constructive means of investing in connectedness.
I do not believe that the metaphors we use to describe our organisations are innocent. They have a real impact on they way we work.
For example, in a recent PNI* project on organisational culture, I heard how employees of a manufacturing facility use spatially orientated metaphors (up-down, top-bottom) to describe the differences between groups of people and how those differences get in the way.
Situated on a large piece of land with a barely noticeable gradient, the factory has two production plants. The one slightly higher up the hill is referred to as “the top factory” in employee’s stories, and the other is known as the “bottom factory”. The top factory is spoken of as the golden child in the organisation’s history, whereas the bottom factory is implicitly the problem child, requiring more focus from managers due to numerous production issues. This spatial metaphor is now a value judgement, assigning an identity to that area that also affects the self-esteem of the workers.
The top-bottom metaphor was even more prevalent when I listened to office-based staff share stories about the culture. Management was ‘up there’, with the implicit meaning that ‘we are down here’. One factory-based employee lamented “we never see people from the top come down here”. This was an organisation struggling with a sense of separateness and it was rooted in the stories people told about the place.
One of the common metaphors used to describe the disconnectedness was that of the silo. We know it well, and it’s accompanying mindset: the silo mentality. Our solutions to this disconnectedness are also metaphorical: we have to break down the silos. Can you visualise what happens when a grain silo is destroyed?
So I wonder how things could be different if we view layers, structures, functions and geographies as ‘worlds’ instead, where the issues of organisational effectiveness and co-ordination are about ‘bridging worlds’ rather than breaking down barriers.
Think about the idea of a world. We use the word in everyday language, but some philosophers argue that ‘participating in worlds’ is the defining characteristic of what it means to be human. We feel worlds and we just know when we are in a similar world, or when a world stands apart, strangely distinct from our own. We also know the flow that results when worlds align, not collide.
So how are we to bridge the disparate worlds at play within our organisations?
Too often though, our desire to understand our organisational world or people-related issues results in a leader commissioning yet another staff survey. This is an impoverished way of encountering the worlds at play in your organisation – they provide a thin description of what is actually a rich world. They are also thin ice upon which key decisions are made. This is where a narrative-based approach to surveys can be utilised, where the richness of worlds are gathered in scalable ways.
Bridging worlds can be done in surprisingly simple ways. Besides making the effort to connect interpersonally with colleagues from different worlds in our organisation, there is one which I believe paves the way: an invitation to share your world with me by sharing some stories of what it is like to participate in that world.
In a factory setting this invitation is about the Managing Director walking down onto the shop floor and asking his colleagues to share stories of recent events that have got people talking a lot.
In an office setting this invitation is about a sales person meeting up with a finance colleague and inviting her to share some stories about what it is like to be a custodian of the company’s finances. In return, this is about a finance person asking the sales rep to share some stories from the field that illustrate what challenges are encountered in trying to hit sales targets.