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An Agile Team's Guide to Breaking Down Information Silos

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An Agile Team's Guide to Breaking Down Information Silos

Secrets are no fun...

· Agile Zone ·
Free Resource

A silo...full of information.

A silo...full of information.


Pop quiz! What do email threads, restricted documents, and water-cooler conversations have in common? They are the raw materials with which information silos are built.

You may also like: What Are Data Silos?

We think of silos as rock-solid structures that can (and sometimes do) survive a category five tornado. In truth; however, the information silos we encounter at work aren’t as indestructible as they seem. With a few techniques for more open, effective communication and a little bit of moxie, you and your team can beat the system. Ready for some strategic subversion? Let’s do this.

Make information open by default and force yourself to justify restricting it. Not the other way around.

What Are Information Silos and Why Do Agile Teams Care?

The term “information silo” refers to the phenomenon of data and knowledge getting trapped inside a team or department, preventing others in the organization from accessing it. Although they are sometimes created intentionally for political reasons, more often, they arise accidentally. When you’re wrapped up in the daily hustle and bustle, it’s easy to forget or ignore the importance of sharing relevant information.

Information silos harm teams — and whole companies — in a few ways. First, they thwart productivity by making it tough for you to access the information you need to get the job done. Second, they make it harder for new hires to get up to speed. Last, nothing perpetuates a culture of distrust, politics, and internal competition like information silos.

For agile teams, these three outcomes are killers. As a cross-functional team, you're bringing in new people all the time (e.g., a specialist in UX research during the envisioning phase of a big project) and they need to be able to get up to speed quickly. You're also working across disciplines and departments. If you can't discover or self-serve the info you need, your team velocity takes a hit while you struggle to figure out who to go to and convince them to give you access.

Six Ways Agile Teams Can Be the Change They Seek

If you’re sick of running up against siloed information (and I assume you are, because who isn’t?), leading by example is the name of the game. Chances are, nobody will hassle you for sharing information about your projects, your priorities, your techniques, etc. Chances are, teams around you are will respond in kind, creating a virtuous cycle of ever-more open communication.

To start chipping away at those pesky silos, follow these high-level practices:

Communicate Proactively

As soon as you have information that may affect someone else’s work, let them know. This is especially true if they’ll need to change their plans as a result, but also true if the information you’re sharing will speed their project along.

Use Email as Little as Possible

On the surface, email seems like a great medium for sharing. It’s actually a sneaky little silo-builder: there’s no way for anyone except those on the send list to discover the information that may be relevant to them. The more knowledge is locked away in email threads, the longer it takes new hires to start making valuable contributions, and the more likely it is that people will duplicate efforts or repeat mistakes their colleagues have already made.

Make User Stories and Documents Discoverable by Default

As with email, knowledge locked away in restricted documents is knowledge wasted. Whether you use Google Docs, Office 365, or a wiki-flavored tool like Confluence, set up your pages and documents to be collaborative. Don't forget to open up your backlog and user stories, too. Make information open by default and force yourself to justify restricting it — not the other way around. If you're nervous about it at first, just think of all the times you won't be interrupted by requests for info. Ahh...

Use Shared Chat Rooms Liberally

Group chat isn’t just for exchanging info with your immediate team. Fire up a Slack channel for specific projects, sprints, or releases and invite everyone involved in that body of work. This way, they'll know that anything happening in that channel is relevant to them. What's more, people from anywhere in the company can pop in to ask a question or get up to speed by scrolling back through the chat history.

Write It Down

Lots of valuable information gets exchanged verbally in meetings, hallway conversations, etc, but those who weren't present are left in the dark. (As a full-time remote employee, I know this pain all too well!) Make a habit of popping into your team’s chat room to share anything relevant so it’s recorded and available for reference later. If nothing else, relay it to the team at your next stand-up. For bonus points, update or comment on any relevant documents as well.

Keep It Brief and Make Sure It’s Relevant

Respect your colleagues' time by proactively sharing information only with those who can put it to use. Maybe it’s only relevant to one or two people. That’s ok! If you adopt the five practices above, others will be able to discover the info on a self-serve basis when they need it.

When You Break Down Information Silos, Everybody Wins

Anyone in the company should be able to discover the information they need to do their jobs effectively and efficiently. This means making information open whenever practical (and sometimes even when it’s not). When you do, you build a culture of trust by removing fears about what may be happening behind closed doors and by helping others understand the reasons behind decisions or initiatives.

Free-flowing information also boosts productivity. Fewer blockers, fewer repeated mistakes, fewer re-inventions of the wheel, and fewer people left out of the loop. To be fair, it can be irritating when people drop feedback on a work in progress before you’re ready for it or without knowing the full context around your work. This will happen from time to time. Resist the urge to toss their comments aside or view it as a tax on your time. Instead, treat it as an investment in making your work stronger.

Besides, it’s far better than the alternative: uncovering a fatal flaw after it’s too late to do anything about it.


Further Reading

Agile Games for Team Building

Team Building Mental Models

Topics:
information ,communication ,productivity ,sharing knowledge ,agile

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