Joined Up Thinking. Why is it so hard for some organisations? What can be done?

"Why does it end up with outsiders with perceived limited influence being the ones who can see how an organisation could be more joined up in how it thinks and operates?"  A question I was asked last week.

I worked in local government a while back and was sometimes frustrated at how one service or department 'over there' would not join up when its work impacted with someone else 'over there'.  I call this silo working.  I put it down to a need for improvement in individual accountability and personal responsibility and a lack of good personal communication and strategic thinking skills.

VCSE organisations I work with that deliver service based work express dissatisfaction at the same thing.  Just last week someone remarked "it's like we are having to do this for them" (them being a local authority).  Local government has less money, people, time and resources so you'd think they'd have had this figured out by now.  

In his book "Understanding Organisations" Charles Handy explains how organisational culture relies on better understanding what it does itself along with the needs and motivations of its people and customers if it it is to improve. There are a range of activities he proposes that organisations should undertake internally.  In his introductory piece to his updated edition he remarks: 

"...common sense and intuitive leadership need to be backed up by a better understanding of how human communities work.... organisations are not inanimate objects... words like 'strategy', 'structure' and 'systems' can easily deceive one into thinking that if you get these things right, the rest will follow."

I am with Handy on this, as until organisations get to grips with how they do things (their values and culture) they will not shift transformationally or have a reason to, towards joining up. And that relies on people management and leadership to help people learn through experience, as well as understanding that operating in hierarchies (something local government seems to do) works against being able to consult and engage with people across boundaries.  Local authorities are supposed to now (Social Care Act) be joined up with health, for example, so that the ticking time bomb of adult social care is improved, but I can't see how that will work whilst the culture stays at it is, built on hierarchies and silos and not addressing the people change needed or the fact that you can change a system and be efficient but you still need to resource it well and remove the obstacles that stand in the way. 

For organisational effectiveness you need to consider:

  • leadership (skills, knowledge, style, goals, power, relationships)
  • internal relations (size, age, cohesion, objectives, types of people)
  • systems and structures (admin, controls, rewards, power, politics)

Joining it up involves strategy, motivation, environment (technological and physical), ability, roles and responsibilities, economics and linking mechanisms.  And the people. Complex!

Here are six ideas for being better at joining up:

  1. Change is inevitable and disconcerting but organisations must run on today's and tomorrow's thinking.  I have heard references to VUCA lately in relation to the environment in which organisations need to operate: volatility, uncertainty,  complexity, ambiguity.  Get to grips with this inside the organisation and realise that the same applies to others too - yet another reason to join up and work together! And yes, it is a massive, complex challenge!
  2. Leadership needs to model this from the top.  Excellence in communicating how this needs to happen rests with senior people who will inspire and invite everyone to follow.
  3. Create and sustain a motivating environment in which people work, communicate and do business.  Build their skills, recognise and reward them. Skill yourselves up internally to be joined up and recruit people who have this conscious competence.
  4. Promote values and relationships with customers and partners that are open, based on trust, learning and listening.  They will tell you what barriers exist to joined up thinking and you need them to help you remove them. They can help.
  5. Listen actively.  So listen with the intent to understand and engage with partners, customers and stakeholders rather than with the intent to reply and hold ground to your structures and systems of 'un-joined-up-ness'.
  6. Plan to be in it for the long haul.  No short termism.  Organisational life is not static and you can't go about solving one problem at a time or being so systematic.  Leaders must synthesise all aspects of people management and organisational change continuously (nobody said it was easy!)