Transversality: Breaking Down Work Silos for a Better Team Experience

By Julia Preston
Senior Program Manager

I’ve run into the term transversality a couple of times in the past few weeks, which struck me: How could the concept really be that much of a buzzy business term now, when the movements toward working together across silos have been increasing for decades?

Could it be that silos form no matter what? If so, why, and what can we do to combat it?

It seems that the catalyst of the discussion is a rise in promoting a transversal workforce for rising new technologies. There are so many complex issues to solve in technology that voices across disciplines are necessary to get to the answers.

projekt202 consults with a variety of industries and technologies, so we have a prime vantage point to see how organizational moves to be transversal are working against enterprise silos.

Silos are very powerful and slow to change, especially in an enterprise environment. I recently found with a client that there were so many silos that I occasionally would find out information from working with one company vertical in my program that my other teams at the client didn’t know yet. That was even with the first team vertical feeling that they had been communicating quickly across the company.

Our focus on user experience at projekt202 continuously creates the need to help our clients and our internal teams work across silos. One experience in the eyes of a user could have a myriad of systems and business units behind it working in silos. In fact, having ethnographic research at the heart of a project can help team members work together because there is no one leader’s idea; the goal is the idea formulated for the user.

The increasing trend to have C-level experience officers looking across business units towards user experience will help break down some of the silo walls, but there are many things each of us can be watching on a smaller scale.

It can be easy to see those silos as an outside consultant for an enterprise organization and think that, as a smaller team, projekt202 is immune to the same tendencies. It isn’t that straightforward. We must work to break down silos, too.

To do that, we must consider the reasons why silos naturally form and set up methods to continuously work in favor of cross-functional teams. That comes from embracing agile as a philosophy within your work culture rather than just thinking about it as a project process.

It’s a mental model. That mental model partners with our leader-leader mentality of an organization. Promoting power and responsibility of all levels of an organization both requires and creates a level of trust and interest in peers.

In the end, it is the peers working together to solve projects across business unit or functional practice lines that gets true transversality.

There are common silo triggers to watch for on interdisciplinary teams:

· Agile vs. Waterfall Mentality — Working together as a scrum team doesn’t decrease the desire sequential tasks, especially those between disciplines. For example, the team needs some research first, developers like as much design as possible before diving in, or product owners like to know the full size before making decisions.

· Research Outcomes vs. Prior Commitments — There can be conflicts between the capability commitments made before starting to research a project and the outcomes that can come from user research. The latter increases a potential for needing to adapt releases.

· Business vs. Technical — There are often different goals and metrics, different languages, or even issues with what technologies could or should be used. These can be conflicting influences on team decisions.

· Local vs. Distributed Teams — Distributed teams can create cultural discrepancies or silos of communication. Being in the same locality can create a false comfort that everyone is on the same page.

· Legacy Teams vs. New — Mixing up teams who have strong opinions about the prior system or what the new system should be can create opinion silos.

Each of these common silo triggers can be improved by continuously refining, or even retooling, process and being attentive as individuals to communication.

Here are six tips to help combat the pitfalls:

1. Full Inclusion — Make sure to include all stakeholders, external and internal, in initial project planning. Set full-scrum brainstorm sessions on features to have all voices in the solutioning. Set up cross-team reviews and checkpoints, as well as embrace really using your sprint retros.

2. Documentation — Set up knowledge management tools for transparency across practices and convince all team members to update it throughout the project.

3. Learn About One Another — Different practices need to know about the other’s subject matter expertise and individual needs. Spend time at the start of the project to make sure everyone on the team talks to their needs, goals and experiences to develop a common clear understanding of how to work together. Set up collaborative workshops on topics we commonly solve, lunch-n-learns, and official training on communication and process. Hire hybrid team members when possible: researcher + designer, developer with a design background or vice versa, etc. Promote rotation; people shouldn’t always be on the same project team.

4. Plan Time for Collaboration — Recognize a lower official capacity number to allow for communication. It’s not certainly not 40 hours/person per week. It might not even be in the 30s!

5. Don’t Make It All About Work — Spend some time together that isn’t perfunctory: lunches, gathering for community service projects, or other things that can be solved that aren’t normal “work.” It doesn’t even have to be that much, just take the time that isn’t forced for a few minutes to breathe, chat, and share.

6. Be Human — Just remembering to think about the other person you’re working with is a start. Empathy is a powerful tool.



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