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Systems thinking: Exit the silo

Originally published by Channelpartner magazine (German only)

Silo thinking blocks many companies on their way to a service-oriented organization. Here’s how systems thinking clears the way.

Systems thinking focuses on what’s important: the best possible customer experience.
Systems thinking focuses on what’s important: the best possible customer experience.

The customer is at the center of a service-oriented organization. Silo thinking prevents them from staying there. Strong departmental thinking and actions build internal walls where cross-departmental teamwork is needed, and the consequences are felt throughout the organization. Silos can prevent IT and business from working together effectively, lengthen IT ticket resolution times and negatively impact service quality.

Enterprise Service Management (ESM) is the enterprise-level equivalent of IT Service Management (ITSM). The goal of ESM is to improve the quality of services across the enterprise through standardized and automated processes. A study conducted by IDG Research Services in the DACH region shows that 90 percent of the decision-makers surveyed are convinced of the benefits of ESM, but implementation is lagging behind. One of the reasons is the “almost indestructible silo structures in most companies [...]. The coordination effort across different departmental cultures and systems prevents processes from being digitized across the board”. A company’s future viability increasingly depends on its ability to overcome silos.

Fighting silos

Many companies are fighting the battle against silos. But it is a fight against windmills. Companies may destroy the superficial silo structures, but not what keeps them alive: silo thinking - the enduring opponent of a service-oriented organization.

Silo thinking means that everyone focuses and optimizes only what they are responsible for. However, if you tackle complex issues as if you were on a deserted island, you optimize past the customer. While a call for more service orientation sounds simple in theory, it can be more difficult in practice. Systems thinking - the benefits Organizations are complex, and so are their problems. Interconnected problems are best solved with interconnected thinking. Systems thinking is circular, interconnected thinking. The coaching and management consulting industries have been using systemic approaches to solve complex problems for years, and IT can benefit from this. Three major benefits are: 1. Complexity under control Does this sound familiar? Collaboration between IT and the business department is tense, and the results are disappointing. The project manager starts looking for the cause and talks to the IT experts first. For them, the responsible are obvious: “As the business department always gives us the solution instead of describing the problem, we don't understand what they need“. He then talks to the team of the according department, for whom the responsible are also obvious: “The developers simply don't understand us. As they don't understand what we need, we provide them with the detailed solution. “ Now the question is: Is the given solution the cause or effect of the developers not understanding the concerns of the business? When each party sees their own behavior as a reaction to the other's action, the Systemic Coach speaks of circular causality. Cause and effect are interrelated. If the project manager continues to use linear-causal thinking to solve a circular-causal situation, he easily gets entangled in a vicious circle of mutual blame. This neither brings him closer to the solution, nor does it help the working atmosphere.

Systems thinking makes connections visible, dynamics understandable, and responses comprehensible. It allows IT and the business to see how their behavior contributes to and perpetuates the problem. You can only change what you understand. Systems thinking makes complex situations understandable.

2. Find better solutions faster IT and business make each other's lives miserable. Testing is a common source of frustration. Ideally, business should test and provide feedback quickly. In practice, it often takes several reminders before testing is done, and after testing is done, numerous feedback loops are required before development is complete. According to IT, the most common reasons are that the business department is rarely available, doesn't know what it wants, or doesn't formulate requirements accurately. As a result, initially small developments can drag on for months.

There is also frustration on the business side. Colleagues have heavy workloads, little time, and IT is often an uncontrollable black box. For example, development requests are left unattended by developers for months or passed from department to department because no one feels responsible. After much time has passed and transparent communication has become a scarce commodity, development is suddenly thrown over the internal wall and pressure is put on the department to provide quick feedback. During testing, it often appears that the development side has never tested before, or that the requirements are not understood. This necessitates further adjustments that require new testing activities that are usually just as uncoordinated, intransparent, and inefficient as before. Frustration becomes a constant companion in internal collaboration on both sides. Cross-departmental team spirit is lost, delays accumulate, and quality suffers.

A Systemic Coach can make internal collaboration less frustrating. How does this work? Steve de Shazer, an American psychotherapist and pioneer in the field of systemic work, gets to the heart of the matter: "Problem talk creates problems, solution talk creates solutions”. A Systemic Coach helps IT and the business to become more service-oriented by bringing them out of the problem trance and helping them to think and act in a solution-oriented way. As a result, everyone - IT, business and customers - achieves their goals faster.

3. Customer in the focus Solving complex problems requires asking the right questions. Thomas S. Kuhn, a physicist, philosopher of science, and science historian, summed it up this way: "The answers you get depend on the questions you ask." If the words are applied to the enterprise context, silo questions lead to silo solutions. Many IT departments are asking themselves the question: “How can the development process be more efficient?” This typical silo question focuses the spotlight on the development process, promotes silo thinking and thus silo solutions. But of what use is faster development to customers if the resulting efficiency gain is swallowed by the coordination effort between departments?

If you want service-oriented solutions, you should start asking service-oriented questions. Systemic questioning techniques help to implement this. They can sometimes appear quite unconventional, such as: “Who benefits from the problem?” When applied in a targeted manner, they interrupt old silo thought patterns, stimulate new service-oriented thought processes, and thus promote service-oriented action.

The full potential of service orientation can be unlocked by investing in a service-oriented corporate culture. A Systemic Coach can be a worthwhile investment in this respect.


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