Think ships, not silos

Written by: David Scott
Published on: 2 Dec 2019

David ScottApplying military squadron theory to civilian organisations can help to progress the silo debate, says David Scott.

Much has been written about silo working being poor business practice. But tribalism is part of the human survival psyche; it has gotten us far. To go further, we have to move our thinking from isolated settlement to collaborative communities.

On completing a maintenance apprenticeship, I joined the Royal Navy. This has afforded me the ability to apply an additional prism through which to view organisations and the working environment.

For those working in a silo-oriented organisation, how can you achieve this paradigm shift? By way of explanation, join me on a short voyage.

Static silos and busy ships

On our way to the dock, we pass a group of silos. There they stand, immobile, silent, fixed to the landscape with a walkway at the top as the only communication link.

By contrast, we can see from the quayside that our ship is alive with activity as it prepares for sea. The crew comprises the full spectrum of staff from captain (head of department) to sailor – and diverse skill sets in our chefs and engineers.

Everyone is working to a well-communicated plan, each understanding their role and its importance. Telephones, radios, the ship’s PA system and ‘voice primary’ (shouting) are all being used to ensure that information on progress is being passed up and changes and adjustments in what is required being passed down. Information is flowing, not being hoarded.

At sea, we join other ships to form a larger organisation under the command of a single admiral (MD).

A storm approaches (dynamic business environment) so the squadron changes its course and turns, in unison, into the turbulent sea where it continues to progress. The silos just sit and get battered.

If a ship is in trouble, others form a protective screen until the problem is resolved. They offer assistance and additional resources. The military calls this teamwork, but you can call it internal customer service.

The destination is reached, the crews go ashore and capitalise on new opportunities. Those on the silos, however, just look at the damage done by the storm and make the most of anything lying around.

It’s a simplistic story, but it has credence. I have worked in public and private sector organisations where a strategy is absent or only communicated to the higher managerial levels. Their staff remain unaware of organisational goals and struggle to link what they do to a purpose, soon becoming demotivated and frustrated.

How to build a squadron

So let’s start a squadron by creating your ship. To do this, we need a destination (objective) – what can we improve within our sphere of influence? And we need a map (strategy) – how do we make the change and communicate the result? Then we need a navigator (leader). That’s you, and you need the courage to:  

  • Delegate and give others the space to do their job;  
  • Support staff as they learn from their mistakes;  
  • Give them the necessary information and access to your peers and seniors. Don’t be a gatekeeper – let them make you shine then share the light and spread it further;  
  • Develop sound peer relationships and clear communication channels both upward and downward.

Finally, you need an engaged and committed crew (our colleagues). Once the plan or strategy is communicated and understood you will be surprised how quickly engagement occurs.  

This may look like ‘Management 101’ but I make no apology for its simplicity; it works. I have achieved this at a departmental and organisational level. The latter involved taking an FE college from Ofsted ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’ in 18 months.

Your job is to decide what this can do for your sphere of responsibility – and set sail. 

David Scott is deputy director of estates and facilities at the University of Roehampton (London)