Despite serious innovation efforts and intense change processes many companies fail to develop their full potential in the future because of their own structures and the silo thinking within their divisions. The silo thinking of divisional managers as well as teams and departments, and the associated trench wars over budgets and recognition prevent the risk-taking step into a new work modus and the implementation of necessary innovations. Even worse, this behavior creates the illusion of being in control by merely cosmetic improvements that are labeled as decisive break-throughs. For example, a company searches to engrain digization into its framework, and therefore asks its most prominent project managers to execute a digitzation project. Two things generally happen, i.e. firstly, the task turns into a competition among the project leads and their teams to make a mark. Secondly, by defintion a project is limited in terms of time, thus the project ends after some months and creates the illusion that now digitization is integrated into the fabric of the company. I'm sure, you all know how this story ends. Nothing has been gained. To be frank, quite the opposite, the company has lost the opportunity to take a significant step into their future and is not better prepared for it than it was before.
First of all - it's not about you
Although management often sees the need for business and cultural change, implementation fails because employees who have learned over decades that it is much better to focus on the goals of their own team first, rather than the company as a whole. This is understandable, because within the last decades employees and leads were conditioned that way in order to maintain status. But this is the core of all evil: As soon as teams and departments think strictly in silos and concentrate on their own advantage only, the willingness to innovate and make real progress in the team and company stands still. Sometimes it is willingly blocked. Ultimately, performance also suffers.
Of course, every team has its own goals and approaches within the company, its own culture and above all fear of losing power and falling into insignificance when management threatens change measures and innovation projects. Maintaining status is much easier and less stressful for everyone. Taking new paths, trying out new ideas and taking risks is exhausting – on short term. No matter how big the company is, the employees are suspicious of what the others are doing. After all, they could be successful and thus receive more recognition from the company management, and next year they could even claim more budget, which will then be cut back in their own projects.
Ultimately – adopt the principle "people first"
With the right inspiration, however, management can slowly soften established processes and ways of thinking. This often takes years, requires a lot of patience and a rethinking in the minds of all those involved. An established corporate culture does not change from one day to the next. The transparent communication of the challenges and problems, constant integration and exemplifying of the necessary changes and, above all, the recognition of projects that became succesful becomes of their cross-functional approach help here. Interdisciplinary teams produce much better results than colleagues with similar experience and areas of responsibility who have been working together for years. Different living conditions, traits, skills, interests and experiences meet and offer completely new approaches and creative ideas.
In the digital era, leaders cannot simply “manage” work. They have to engage their workforces and inspire people to participate. It’s not enough for leaders to know what they want to achieve when starting new initiatives; leaders have to listen to employees from the outset, asking them how they see proposed outcome. Leaders can inspire employees by removing individual insecurity or personal restrictions, helping them define their part in the mission and providing a perspective of personal rewards. The next part for leaders is to work with employees, determine the nature and volume of their work and get them to commit to it – and, above all, help them to do their job without restraints and remove the obstacles out of their way.
A plea for a new mindset and more cooperation
So this is a plea for a new mindset - of employees leaders. It is a mindset set on collaboration – across teams and departmental boundaries. Collaboration is the key to success for leadership in the digital and sustainbility age. But collaboration is simply not possible without shared purpose, individual and collective engagement, and commitment. Leaders and employees must be encouraged to develop the right attitude and put that into action.
True collaborative environments require situational, role-based leadership. Without the security of predefined processes, leaders will not know for sure what decisions or directions will be necessary along the way. The digital leader will be comfortable handing over the reins to other people and picking the right leader in each situation, as circumstances require. Instead of a power position based on authority, the team will have situational, authority-based, even self-organized leadership. The C-level executives may be, by role, the essential overall leaders, but team leaders and domain experts will also play critical leadership roles.
Companies must encourage their people to collaborate across borders and across disciplines, and not just let them run after individual short-term successes. Only in this way, companies can develop their capabilities and innovate their business in the long term. Only those companies that succeed in doing this will be able to really survive in the future and be successful. Only those companies that are able to challenge themselves will sustain in the end.
Photo by Josh Spires on Unsplash