This article is the first in a series focusing on improving public sector decision making.
Silos are no longer fit for purpose.
The public sector - especially the Department of Defense – has historically benefited from a well-defined, deeply engrained hierarchical division/branch structure. In the Air Force alone, there are 9 Major Commands (MAJCOMs) which break into dozens of subordinate organizations which themselves are further broken down into even more divisions with their own missions, goals, and objectives.
While this approach of highly focused silos served America well in the past, today’s interconnected world and ever-changing macro conditions have rendered it obsolete and turned a beneficial approach into an obstacle to better decision making. While many organizations realize this challenge, political, cultural, and technical hurdles exist to making better, faster, mission-aligned decisions.
Silos keep individuals in the dark.
At the individual level, the enterprise mission can be less apparent and factor less into resourcing, allocation, and funding decisions. Employees have a specific role within their organization and are recognized and compensated for their work and responsibilities within their sphere of influence. Workers within a division understand what is expected, can operate efficiently in that construct, and deliver value through their contributions.
However, the construct breaks down when factoring in the inter-dependencies between the divisions, agencies, and departments that are critical elements in meeting the broader mission.
First, individuals often operate in the dark regarding the shifting nature of the mission and the role others play in supporting its objectives. This creates duplicity of effort, inefficiencies in funding, and slows decision making at more senior levels.
Second, many struggle to partner with people they do not normally interact with due to different processes, desired outcomes, technology, and data, to name only a few factors. The result is stilted communication and an inability to efficiently operate as a team focused on a common objective.
This is not an insurmountable problem, however. We suggest a few simple questions to assist with alignment. When working with someone unfamiliar, you should:
- Articulate your role.
- Explain how it fits into the overall mission.
- Describe the processes you follow to achieve your objectives.
Finally, individuals working within a silo struggle to leverage data to provide meaningful insight to leaders due to their limited operational perspective. For example, if an analyst provides insight into a particular problem but it does not align to how a superior organization is thinking, the analysis may be ignored, and data-driven decisions may be disregarded for more qualitative measures.
Overall, these challenges exist even in the smallest of subordinate units but get progressively greater as organizations get bigger.
Silos lead to delays and duplicity.
Organizational structure is often a natural impediment to meeting the mission. This should not be attributed to nefarious behavior or lack of effort at the individual level but instead is the result of a structure which makes smaller objectives at subordinate levels more measurable and thus more important. To do their job well, individuals often must ignore the big mission, do their part, and expect that it will eventually tie to the strategy.
Resourcing decisions are a prime example of how this disconnected approach can negatively affect the mission when organizations cannot take a holistic, data-informed approach to prioritizing projects and applying funds.
There are three elements an organization can use to align individuals with the broader mission, which must be introduced by forward leaning leaders who want to drive change.
- Prioritization Framework. Agreeing on how decisions are evaluated is a critical element to providing shared understanding of the mission. Further, it provides flexibility to repurpose analysis across all levels.
- One Source of (Data) Truth. Most organizations rely on different data and often cannot access the data others use to make decisions. Understanding what data is important and making it broadly available is a crucial step toward mission alignment.
- Enterprise-wide Technology. Using the same system across departments naturally lends itself to more consistent operations, improved data fluency, and more rigorous analysis.
These elements allow decision points to influence the broader organizational discussion on how different investment approaches can support the mission holistically. Otherwise, important decisions may be overlooked when individuals advocate for funding their specific projects to meet performance goals merely within their silo.
Empowering the Front Line
While senior leaders have a broader perspective, it is important to provide a wide perspective to all front-line workers as well, including analysts who would factor more into the decision-making process by:
- Understanding how their mission fits into the broader strategy
- Determining where resourcing fits into their picture and the overall picture
- Assessing the roles others perform as part of the analysis and allocation process
Understanding these elements can create connections between teams, divisions, or even branches where breakages exist today. Individuals who are more aware can break down barriers and promote more effective decision making. This small change can, piece by piece, directly affect the system as a whole and prove to be consequential.
Omni Directional Communication is Key
Communication is the exchange of information within a group working to achieve a singular mission. However, silos often inhibit this flow of information, resulting in limited transparency and disconnectedness. Contact may take place, but it is inefficient and often misunderstood.
Turning discussion into effective communication requires encouraging two-way discourse, empowering employees at all levels to provide feedback and ideas up and down the chain to aid in decision making.
Figure 1 (below) is a model that helps agencies build communication channels across the silos.
Here, Level 3 team members operate together to accomplish tasks based on the mission and goals provided by Level 1. Level 3 has a lot of responsibility and is empowered to voice their opinion and directly coordinate one-on-one with members outside of their silo to tackle challenges.
Level 2 is charged with opening, maintaining, and encouraging those communication channels for information to flow, as well as connecting Level 3 daily work to big picture goals. Additionally, Level 2 members are responsible for implementing the change management required to facilitate this new transparency and openness.
Level 1 is charged with establishing the culture of openness and fortifying that direction into policy for dissemination at all levels.
The lack of bottom-up and top-down communication results in stove piped analysis that leads to an inability to solve enterprise problems. When critical parts of the pyramid operate in the dark without a common language to effectively communicate, the analysis they conduct and decisions they make cannot consider the big picture.
For an organization to achieve its goals, everyone needs to communicate seamlessly, which requires open and transparent communication and well understood goals. This approach also provides better front-line insight from analysts who may not have felt comfortable when speaking up or voicing their opinions in the past.
Break Down Silos for Better, Faster Decision Making
Breaking down silos will require a fundamental change in how the public sector has historically operated. To make this change, the public sector must:
- Promote lean-forward leaders with enterprise vision and strong cultural change management skills.
- Evaluate performance metrics to align individuals not only with their objectives but the overall mission.
- Introduce more consistency in technology, data, and process so individuals across the enterprise can effectively analyze, communicate, and decide.
Strong communication is the driving force to deliver more effective decision making, successful outcomes, and aligned teams that are empowered and committed to meeting the mission.