Breaking down silos isn’t always easy. But bringing diverse perspectives together is essential if we want to build great products.
Great software products fulfill a broad range of use cases, including ones that might not be immediately obvious to the engineers building them. That’s why it’s important to consider multiple perspectives from other teams when designing and implementing solutions.
For a product to work as expected, you need to leverage the knowledge that is often owned by very few people, from folks who understand the design of a system, to those working on communication protocols, to those with information around the specific expectations of stakeholders.
I myself have worked on some complex platform projects with tricky use cases that needed to be considered without knowing that they existed in the first place. The success of those projects came down to the ability of teams of varying skills and knowledge to leave their silos behind and contribute ideas freely.
Some organizations might find it harder than others to break down silos between teams, and collaboration can be more challenging than it seems. Simply putting people together isn’t enough – it’s important to be intentional about collaboration. To help you get started in your company, I’ve laid out five key factors to consider when breaking down silos between teams.
1. Build trust
Breaking down silos can mean leaving a familiar space with elements that you can control, which can be unnerving. That’s why it’s important to set up an environment where people are comfortable trying new things while also failing – a space where individuals can learn from one another and grow.
When bringing teams together, start by creating a shared agreement that folks can follow. Mention the importance of failure and, more importantly, how teams can learn from it, and normalize open design discussions. If you are part of the leadership team, try to engage in those discussions and reinforce positive behavior.
2. Communicate with intention
Communication is key when breaking down silos, but it must be intentional. Especially during our current time of more remote work, it’s important that shared goals are clearly communicated, and that meetings are purposeful, meaningful, and foster collaboration. Without these elements, meeting fatigue may set in and productivity will decrease. You can avoid this by giving clear answers to the following questions:
‘Why are we here?’
- Explain why you need to work together to achieve a goal, that silos can impede success, and that breaking down these silos can alleviate complexities in ownership, allow for different perspectives to solve for the same problem, and result in a more complete product.
‘What are the important aspects of our collaboration?’
- Ask everyone what they think is important to consider for example transparency, risk management, accountability, open-mindedness, trust, or support.
‘How do we want to collaborate?’
- Encourage a range of activities, from weekly meetings and standups to pair programming and workshops.
3. Use the power of abstractions
Another way to ensure everyone is aligned is by telling a concise, unique story through understandable abstractions. Abstractions can provide a unified language among teams and help to simplify iterations between individuals. A common narrative is an excellent tool for understanding the contribution of everyone in a project and allows folks to visualize the different dynamics and connections in their environment.
Good abstractions can also empower individuals. For instance, at my current company, we are constantly having conversations with many stakeholders from different disciplines. Sometimes, our Android engineers haven’t been available for meetings with Android stakeholders, and other engineers on the team (iOS, backend, or web) have been asked to join those sessions to explain our solutions and participate in Q&A. We believe that it is a shared responsibility to represent the team in meetings with stakeholders, which motivated us to look for abstractions that everyone could use and explain. Based on common abstractions that we previously defined together, we developed a presentation toolkit that any team member could refer to during stakeholder meetings.
4. Keep in mind, it’s not always bulletproof
Getting teams up and running is hard work, and it takes some time before everyone is synced with the shared vision and goals. Teams need to go through the standard process of forming, storming, norming, and performing. Once they get up to speed and reach a norming phase, they will feel safer to challenge each other and learn from that. It requires strong leadership and guidance to make teams feel comfortable and trust in each other and in the product they are building.
It’s also important to note that you don’t need to mix up perspectives all of the time. Sometimes, when problems are platform-specific, you might need to keep teams fully focused on one domain.
5. Remember it’s not only about cross-disciplinary teams
To break down silos, some companies simply look to combine a mixture of disciplines in teams. But cross-disciplinary teams don’t always result in collaboration – silos can still exist. To mitigate the risk of these in-team silos, it’s important to always be on the lookout for signals that the silos exist and to break them down as early as possible using the above techniques.
Breaking down silos isn’t always easy. But bringing diverse perspectives together is essential if we want to build great products. By making sure each team member has the opportunity to share their ideas in a safe environment, and by clearly communicating shared goals and a common narrative, you can help your engineers to start enjoying all the benefits collaboration has to offer.