horse with blinders on
When teams act on only the data they have at hand, they're operating with only half of the truth — effectively with blinders on PHOTO: Emilio Labrador

Breaking organizations into teams that focus on specific lines of business is one of the core ways we all organize information and knowledge in order to create products, services and great customer experiences. Beyond emerging startups, it’s difficult to find examples of companies that don’t departmentalize.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

We physically set up our offices to reflect this — departments are located in specific wings, teams sit together. We focus so intently on our own lines of business that it’s easy to become a cog in the machine without seeing the connection between all of our work collectively. And it’s tough to improve processes when people can only see what’s right in front of them.

When I was in college, I had a professor who opened a spring semester class with this popular quote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” That was how he introduced us to the subject of statistics: by pointing out that a single statistic alone is not always indicative of the whole truth.

Years later, while trying to illustrate the return on investment for a digital system at my company using data from a single system, that quote lingered in my brain. It lingered because I was only looking at a very small subset of data at our company. I had blinders on. I was trying to describe a bubble, devoid of context to the larger organization, and to the other processes and systems in place that would help us understand the mechanics of our great big machine. Without access to other departments’ systems and data, I was telling only a half-truth with only the data I had access to.

Working With Blinders On

And this is a problem that many companies face — individual departments don’t always have a holistic understanding of the company's business and its data, but teams may do very good work acting as subject matter experts in specific functional units. We are really, really good, at telling half-truths about our companies and our customers using the hand we’ve been dealt.

So we spend time trying to improve processes, workflows, systems and tools, yet we approach it from the perspective of workers at one station along an assembly line, or of a mechanic or technician who fixes a car or a computer one piece at a time. But our work isn’t linear, and customer paths sure aren’t linear.

The digital assembly line is not really a line at all, it’s a bunch of buckets that you can’t see into. Without access to information and data in these buckets, knowledge dissemination and understanding can’t take place. There’s no “big picture” view, and your department’s data about your customers and your business is just a slice of what’s out there. Dismantling departmental and data silos is a core requirement for any company that truly wants to innovate and undergo digital transformation.

How Do You Bust a Silo?

You don’t have to get rid of departmentalization in your company to truly be successful and break down silos, in fact, it would be difficult to run a very large company without the kind of accountability fostered by a structure based on departments with their own responsibilities and areas of expertise. So, what’s a company to do? Here are a few ways to mix it up and tear down the invisible walls between people and access to data:

  • Introduce cross-functional/cross-departmental teams or squads to focus on specific projects.
  • Mix up your seating arrangement (no specific sales or marketing wing, no desk assignments).
  • Host knowledge-share sessions where specific teams present to the larger group about their work and day-to-day activities.

The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Breaking silos by considering cross-functional or multidisciplinary teams might just be the best way to create amazing customer experiences because the intersection of disciplines is where innovation emerges.

A cross-functional, multidisciplinary approach improves access to knowledge, according to a 2009 report titled “Radical Innovation: Crossing Knowledge Boundaries With Interdisciplinary Teams” (pdf). “In the knowledge economy,” the report states, “it is often the case that the right knowledge to solve a problem is in a different place to the problem itself, so interdisciplinary innovation is an essential tool for the future.”

If you’re ready to stop telling half-truths to your customers and using half-truths to build your product or service, perhaps it’s time to take your blinders off, and see the world beyond your department.

Not just for the data, but for the communication, the understanding and the real path to building better customer experiences.