Silos in City Hall: We were not meant to live this way

A look around any number at city hall buildings in the greater Los Angeles area or the bay area of northern California will reveal some remarkable similarities. For example, if you are a Baby Boomer or on the older side of Generation X, what springs to mind when you remember the interior of public school buildings? Beige walls, embedded lockers, barbaric bathroom facilities, etc., and a general layout that was strangely familiar (when visiting) from one school to the next. Some of these layouts may have come from educational theory at the time and likely, that so many of the buildings were built about the same time.

Similarly, many city halls were constructed at about the same time, during infrastructure ramp ups in the height of the industrial era. But the configuration and layout of these buildings reflected management theory from that era as well – those rooted in an authoritarian construct. If you look at the average city hall layout, it would almost appear as though it was set up in order to create silos preventing communication and collaboration. These floorpans almost seem to connote organizational disfunction that was by design.

This reminds me of the excellent story of the Omnibus Series Wool. In this post-apocalyptic story, you have what is left of humanity living in a massive subterranean silo with various levels that were responsible for functions that kept the silo going: mechanical and power, healthcare, food, IT, administration, etc. But these levels of the silo, while interdependent on one another, did not generally cross pollinate in the social sense, and they certainly did not communicate well. As the story unfolds, you discover the intentional impediment to both communication and cooperation among the various communities. And they certainly struggled at real problem solving, such as how to eventually live outside the silo. Something within the protagonist kept telling her, “we weren’t supposed to live like this.” (By the way, if Hugh Howey saw his great story being used to illustrate this point, he might recommend that I be ‘sent out to cleaning’.)

Back to city hall layouts. My guess is that the contribution to disfunction was not by design, and that the layouts may have worked well in an era that was highly stable and very slow to implement changes reflected in advancements in business and society. But that brings us to this present time. 2016-04-03_22-01-29Irrespective of what may have worked in the past, why do such physical and organizational silos still exist? I think the root of the problem was captured well in Government Finance Review:

Many local government managers have long appreciated the potential benefits of breaking down silos – the barriers that exist between specialized functions – within government. However, for just as long (and usually successfully), silos have resisted integration. There is a good reason why silos persist: Different tribes of government workers, such as police, fire, building inspectors, and even public finance, benefit from having distinct languages, cultures, and work processes, which help organize the complexity of highly specialized professional endeavors.

This problem is not easily remedied, and there are as many organizational and physical challenges are there are people within these work spaces. The article goes on, “Why, then, despite the impressive gains that can be achieved, don’t silos cooperate more often? It is because the human brain makes sense of complexity by storing information in categories.”

So what strategies will begin to change this culture? It begins with leadership and vision. What worked in a different era may have little relevance today. Where a system, framework, guideline, rule or even workspace only exists because it always has, is probably in need of significant evaluation and assessment. This is especially true given that the largest working group (sub-cohort) in the prime working age bracket of the workplace is now between the ages of 25-29. The age of memos and silos has long past, it’s high time we acknowledged it.

Shared Credit for Hard Work

The way to get things done, is not to mind who gets the credit for doing them – Benjamin Jowett

Credit for hard work is not something we should seek to avoid. But at the same time, should we not be overly preoccupied with acknowledgement if our goal is truly to produce our very best work product [as possible] with what is required of us right now.  Self-aggrandizement, overbearing personalities, and the inability to actively and empathetically listen, short circuit the team building process and the natural outworking of progress.

This disproportionate concern with acknowledgment runs contra to the concept of a team, and its accomplishments.  Goals and objectives can still be accomplished by an organization with leadership who tends to be in it for themselves, but who wants to live “one man’s dream” when you could experience all the benefits of healthy team effort? It goes without saying that at best, it is generally not pleasant for those who have to constantly to one person’s ideas to the exclusion of all others. But at worst, over the long haul, an organization will have to deal with the wreckage of only one person being heard. When contributors are heard, included and acknowledged, I think it will encourage not only being truly on board with an organization and its mission, but these same people can become the greatest advocates for changes needed in response to challenges.

More Notes on Tesla’s Patent Sharing

Tesla surprised most readers with its blog post announcing in essence, and open source of its patented technology,

Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.

Immediately, our minds [rightly] go to the risk this represents, but in a post last month, the point was made that by tapping into the sharing power of the social era, Tesla may diffuse billions in costs it now shoulders alone:

Lured by the higher volumes, auto suppliers would also develop new parts, components and systems —software, brakes, charging devices—that would make Teslas run more effectively and lower production costs. Gas stations, start-ups, office buildings would build many more charging stations to accommodate the larger number of electric vehicles on the road. Utilities and real estate developers would start making home-charging stations standard rather than expensive extras. All of this would be a boon to Tesla. And the company might find it could start charging drivers of other electric vehicles for access to the super-charging network it has already built. And if electric vehicles were to rise in popularity, the government would likely offer increased support. Imagine if every rest stop on an interstate housed a rapid-charging station.

Navigant Research shows the following projections with a few continued, sluggish years that may be followed by a ramp up as collaboration pays off:

EV Sales Projections - Navigant Research

In a post on this topic, Navigant shares the possible benefit of collaboration among large manufacturers:

While the patent release by Tesla will surely increase collaboration with the major car manufacturers already producing EVs, it’s much less clear that open patents will move the dial on the major automakers who have largely steered clear of EVs in the past. Toyota, GM, and several other major players are hedging their bets on EVs, and Tesla’s patent release is unlikely to change their position…Increased collaboration between the major EV players could lead to this figure being achieved ahead of schedule.

Only time will tell of course, but this example of a fundamentally different way of doing business will be interesting to watch and hopefully, will turn out to some degree as expected.