Q: In our organization the Program and Development Departments work in silos. What is disconcerting is that they have no desire to work together. Development constantly complains that Program doesn’t share “its” list of donors or turn in required reports. Program complains that Development siphons needed resources from the mission and that its requests and grant proposals unnecessarily add to Program’s work load. A number of us feel this is not the way to do business, but we haven’t been able to convince everyone to play together nicely in the same sandbox. Do you have any suggestions to change the culture here?

 

AIf it makes you feel any better, the situation you describe is, unfortunately, not that uncommon. However, you are smart to want to change it. People invest in impact and impact comes through effective programming. But, effective programming costs money. The greater divide between Program and Development, the less successful Development can be in bringing in the dollars that will support the program.

While there is no single or easy answer, there are a few things I suggest trying. All start with the organization’s vision for the community. I would bring the entire staff together to affirm both the picture of how the community will be different – better – as a result of the organization’s efforts, and the staff’s commitment to achieving that vision. Sometimes, merely reminding people of what they are working toward and that everyone shares the same goal will be sufficient to get them to work more cooperatively.

If it is not, I might ask each department to consider its role in turning the vision into reality. Specifically, for what steps must it be responsible if the vision is to be actualized? What conditions will it have to meet? What resources – monetary, human, physical, etc. – will the department require to accomplish each step? Once these questions are answered, each department will have a better idea of what it can do on its own and what it needs help to accomplish. Usually people realize rather quickly that they have to go outside their department in order to achieve their goals, again making them more willing to work together.

Of course, you can always acknowledge the divide you see, bring the bickering departments together and have them take turns asking each other why given procedures are in place or why certain information is requested. Insist that the group that asks the question really listen to the response! Allow people the opportunity to clarify the answers they heard. Only at that point, give members of that group a chance to share why they find the requirement unnecessary or onerous. Let them offer alternative approaches. Then, open the floor for discussion.

If you still face resistance after all this, ask the departments to take this next step. Give them pads of Post-It notes in two colors. Designate one color to represent the resources – both tangible and intangible – the department needs. Designate the other color to represent the resources the department has. Have each department begin jotting down resources – one per page. With the resources the department has available it is important to list all the assets, not just those it has that it has determined it will need to accomplish its own goals. Post these on a wall gallery-style, where representatives from each department can come by and see if any other department has the resources it needs. Be sure to note in some way which asset came from which department – e.g., by writing the department’s name on each page or by placing the pages on the wall under an identifying banner. In most cases, the needed resources will be available in-house. This opens yet one more avenue for collaboration between departments.

There may still be some additional resources required by one or more of the departments. You can have representatives from each department sit down and discuss who they know in the community that might have the needed resources. Based on the answers, they can then discuss who from within your organization might have an established relationship with that individual or organization and could make the ask. Such an approach emphasizes the “we’re all in this together” attitude that is so important.

These simple exercises remind everyone that they are each a part of something larger than just their own department and that they owe it to the community to cooperate with anyone – internally or externally – that can help them meet that commitment to the community. The discussion of who or what organization(s) outside their own institution might be able and willing to contribute resources acts as a not-so-subtle reminder that if others outside their organization are willing to work selflessly with them, there is no room for department-centric feelings within the institution.

The culture in your organization will not change overnight. Departments will have to be encouraged to share the results of their efforts with the other departments so everyone can recognize the impacts being made. The organization’s leadership will have to share organization-wide outcomes with all the departments and recognize and reward the sharing of resources. But, over time, the silos will begin coming down.

 

COMMENTS

An ever-timely topic this month, and you laid out a very thoughtful response with which I have no disagreement in your recommendations as an attempted response.

That said, my own experience with such problems is that it is a “leadership problem” that will only ultimately be resolved by the CEO bringing in the 2 department leaders, closing the door and saying, “OK, what is it going to take to get your 2 units to work together in harmony? If either of you is unable to do so, your resignation is accepted immediately, and the same goes for any member of your team.” Staff will only behave as badly as the CEO and department heads model, and this particular challenge is so critical to the effective running of a nonprofit that I believe the CEO has to set the expectation, and monitor its results. Short of that, is a semi-hostile work environment that leads to under-performance by the organization. Some people believe that “creative tension” is a good thing in an organization, but I think that is nonsense and is nothing but an excuse for a lack of values and leadership in an organization.

– Brian Foss, Miami, FL 6/7/10

Excellent issue.

On technique that I implemented was cross training. Have staff from the Program Department swap jobs with the Development Department. They may find similar challenges e.g. getting volunteers to attend meetings, will give a greater appreciate of the value of co-workers.

– Sam Tannenbaum