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How to Combat Disconnected Silos in Your Arts Organization

Silos. Anyone who knows me, knows silos are my worst enemy. They’re my personal pet peeve when it comes to running a business, but also my obstacle to having a positive customer experience with other people’s organizations.

So, why have I got such an axe to grind? “Surely silos are a good thing?” I hear you say. They’re a way of classifying our organizations; they’ve come about as a sort of natural order for how things work. All true and correct. But, they also attract a whole load of dysfunctions with them.

Where do silos come from?

Silos naturally come in the form of departments; groups of people who reflect the key activities across the business - finance, sales, marketing etc. Those departments house people with a specific set of skills and expertise, who take responsibility for delivering tasks and activities specific to their function. Those departments work, in theory, efficiently, getting on with their bit of the business often irrespective of the other bits of the business. They’re accountable to a specific workload and they provide a good breeding ground for people to climb the career ladder and move up inside the department.

So, why, given they seem like a logical way to run a business, grouping activities and skills together, can they can also be our worst enemy? Well, I think they hurt our business in two key areas: internal and external.

Internal challenges brought on by silos

First, let’s talk about the challenges that they create internally. Well, the point of silos is they work vertically in a business, with lots of hierarchical towers of departments working alongside each other. This is all good and well but what I have seen happen, is that those departments become inward looking. They focus on their own workloads and priorities, rarely thinking about what’s going on outside their departments. Then, building on that, information stops flowing so well across the business, between silos. Instead it flows up and down the silo but never out of it, creating black holes of knowledge and, at times, inefficiencies as people duplicate efforts because they didn’t know another department was also working on a task.  And finally, smart decisions aren’t getting made because they’re being made at department level rather than at an organizational level, representing the interests of one group of people within a business rather than the whole business. Doesn’t sound ideal, does it?

External challenges brought on by silos

Now, let’s think about externally. This is where it gets really ugly. That siloed mentality and the lack of information about what’s going on in an organization hurts the customer the most. We all know that great customer experience is seamless. It means that whoever we’re interacting with should know us, our history with their organization and our interests. On top of that, a great customer experience means that everyone we come into contact with from an organization treats us with the same commitment and style, irrespective of who they are and what department they’re from. In an arts organization, that means my quality of experience is consistently good whether I’m dealing with your fundraising team, your front of house team or your sales team.

But when an organization is really silo’d, my experience is really disconnected. For example, I talk to your usher about the capital campaign I saw you were fundraising for and they have no knowledge of why you’re doing it, or when I talk to your ticket sales team and their tone of voice with me is entirely different from the nice friendly tone of voice that was in my marketing brochure stating I’m a valued customer who should buy a membership (not to mention they don’t know that I am meant to be buying a membership). The examples are endless.

So, silos aren’t the natural solution to running our business well. I’m not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater and suggest the end of silos or departments, but if we’re to keep them and work with them to our advantage, we have to think about how we solve the problems of alignment and communication. We need to think about how we can work better across our business, how our department priorities can be aligned, how we can share information more effectively, and, more often than not, how we can improve customer experience as a result of it.

Where do we start? I think it’s pretty simple and it all comes down to communication.

1. Figure out your organizational goals

First, the business needs to know the ultimate focus of activities for the short to mid-term. That means setting the goals for the organization, from which people can start to prioritize their activities. If a set of people know what the overarching goals are, they can then figure out how best to work together to achieve them.

2. Align your teams

Second, we need to think about how we work across departments better and that comes down to alignment. At Spektrix, we’ve created a group of people who represent the needs and activities of each business area. This group then needs to spend time together to understand the priorities and activities of each department, making sure that no priorities are at conflict with one another. That group needs to ensure each department is aligned in what it’s doing, united behind the overarching goals of the business.

3. Work on communication

Third, we move on to communication. Once each department knows what they’re working on, this information also needs to then be shared across the whole company, so everyone is on the same page. We want to avoid the situation where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. This could be in the form of an internal newsletter, a social media platform used for internal business only or even a company-wide meeting. Whatever you do, make sure you’re setting up the right communication tools and framework for easy, regular communication.

How we break down silos

Then it’s a case of repeating step two and three regularly. At Spektrix those steps happen weekly. Getting the right people in the room to discuss what we’re working on means not only are we all informed (the left hand does know what the right hand is doing and vice versa) but it also means that by bringing those people together sometimes we can solve the challenges we face in smarter ways. By bringing a group of people around the table from different silos with different expertise, we can think laterally, solving problems from a different perspective. We’re also more agile because of it. As we’re all united behind the business goal, and aware of our department's priorities, we’re able to have conversations about moving resource around, shifting priorities, changing direction when needed, because we’re no longer just focused on one department's success, but the business’s success overall.

We make sure then (and this is in many ways the hardest part) that everyone knows what’s going on. Information is disseminated across the organization through weekly cross-business status updates, bi-weekly team meetings, monthly newsletters, and regular company meetings. That way, all being well, everyone has a clear view of what’s going on in the business.

Make a big change and see even bigger results

For arts organizations, I think this applies just as well, but the impact is even greater. You can equip your team with the knowledge they need to not only work smarter and more efficiently, but also to extend this into the customer experience. Making sure you answer your customer’s questions seamlessly about anything from your program to your upcoming capital development campaign, will create a much more meaningful experience.