Monday, December 10, 2012

The Marginalization of Cross Silo Thinking

Good morning
“And the beat goes on..................

That’s Not Your Area of Expertise - Mind Your Own Business:
I ran across a response on the Quora website to the question: “Programmers: What do you think when you hear "I just need a tech co-founder?"  wherein the responder lamented that the IT contributor to startups is often seen as a mere perfunctory in the process; not an integral part of the whole.  Too often, said the responder, the attitude of the start up originator is the equivalent of someone saying: ‘I have the idea, all I need is the technical guy to make it reality’  (“The nontechnical founders need to develop a deep respect for the development process & how non-trivial it is.”)

Everyone, everywhere is today relegated to some silo.  We value expertise, but we isolate one expertise from the process of creating something itself.  Each area of expertise is isolated from the whole of the process.  When I graduated college, the joke was that a degree in political science and a dollar would get you a cup of coffee.  So I went to law school and graduation conferred on me a marketable ‘expertise’.  (The truth of the matter is that what we lawyers know that you don't know lies largely in that we have developed layer upon layer of confusing nomenclature that only we can decipher - at $250 an hour.)  But lawyers, like IT people today, are dispensable functionaries - they are part of the larger enterprise, but expected to do what they do, and not offer ideas about what someone else does.  And while all of the individual and separate contributions of a myriad of players in any enterprise are essential in some way - the system of expertise and siloing potentially foregoes innovation and creativity, because each of us is expected to limit our contribution to our own area of expertise.  Is that smart?

In the nonprofit arts world we have built similar silos.  I, and others, have talked about the danger of relegating younger leaders to isolation by putting them into the “emerging” classification - a label that unintentionally works to marginalize their skills, talents and contributions by questioning their experience level.  In an uptake on that issue, Charles Jensen comments in a blog post on that danger.

We do that across the board.  Marketing people are separated from those who work in the Development area and they are usually not expected, nor invited, to offer ideas outside their sphere. IT people are expected to limit their contribution to the tech side. Finance people are separate from production and program administrators and they too are expected to confine their thinking to their own area.  And God forbid any of those on the administration side would ever dare to have a thought about the creative aspect of an organization’s art or performance.  The artistic people would be aghast were an administrator to offer an idea on set design, or costuming, or staging, or curation.  Artists often find the very thought to be threatening - an invasion of their creativity prerogative.

The message is clear - stay in your niche.  Be a good soldier - don’t try to overstep your bounds.  Do your thing, but only your thing.  Keep your ideas on other's people's areas to yourself.

I am reminded of the quote:  “If you want to have a good idea, you need to have lots of ideas”.  Most creativity is choosing between ideas and approaches.  Why then isn’t having more ideas better?  Why then do we not have some means to allow for the cross-pollination of ideas from all quarters?  There is, of course, a time consideration.  You can’t realistically make every decision by committee, nor can you probably reasonably expect that people outside of one sphere will fully understand or appreciate all the factors (let alone the nuances) involved in a new idea in another area.  But arguably that very handicap might allow for new kinds of thinking that would not come from those who suffer the limitation of understanding too well their own sphere.

What is the impact on a thriving, and truly creative open enterprise of this kind of discriminatory isolation?  How many good ideas are lost because we are all experts at one thing and access to offering ideas in other areas is nonexistent - discouraged if not outright prohibited?

With increasing movement of people from one job area to another, more eclectic resumes denoting broader experience gained, and the sheer incalculable amount of knowledge out there - why do we foreclose input by siloing our people into pigeonholes?

There must be some way we can have more open organizations without being paralyzed by too much input; some way where cross fertilization of thinking across silos of expertise would yield better thinking.  Such a challenge involves two formidable obstacles:  1) coming up with the internal mechanism itself which would allow people to think outside their areas and productively (not disruptively) contribute; and 2) and more difficult - a change in our culture and way of thinking about what we do and the territoriality of protecting and defending our expertise so that we might be more open to that kind of different approach.

The current systemic way we limit our consideration of our own people’s potential creativity seems to me anyway to be confining and perhaps costly, if not outright demeaning and insulting.

Have a good week, and try to stay sane as the holiday chaos gains momentum.

Don’t Quit.