The Stairway Problem

The Stairway Problem - How physical space creates silos

One of the biggest transformations a company goes through isn’t financial, but physical. Adding, changing, moving, and creating new physical space in an office will change the dynamics of how work gets done. People are at new desks. Things feel fresh. There’s reclaimed wood everywhere. There’s also 12 steps between two teams that despite their new-found distance are still working on the same goal. It may as well be 12 miles.

Welcome to the stairway problem.

The addition of a stairwell in a company is the second biggest physical change a company faces. The largest is moving buildings, but that is more like an organizational blender with four walls and a roof. Physical space separates and divides. As shouting distance becomes impossible, the cracks in communication begin to show. Teams that are autonomous and given enough isolation will evolve independently. Soon the common thread everyone was working on gets lost. You’ll find yourself with silos. Most companies solve this breakdown with, you guessed it, a Status Report.

Blood Transfusions

The solution that keeps everyone from building up silos is obvious in hindsight: shifting roles. If a company embraces having people try new things (and creates the means for them to go forth and do so), the silos never get a chance to form.

Transfusion in an organization has some hidden benefits. It forces you invest in onboarding, it makes you have come-together meetings so vision can be shared, and it creates deeper threads that run between the different parts of the organization. You may not have the answer to your scaling problem, but Sally does. And because of transfusion, someone that worked with Sally on another project knows she’s a badass and can solve this exact problem you are having. Don’t limit yourself to just contributors, either. Management should be moving around as well. Everyone should have the opportunity to see more of the organization.

That doesn’t mean moving people ad-hoc and causing disruption. To make transfusion natural, there needs to be some lightweight structure or ground rules.

Own the transfusion. Tie up loose ends and provide enough time that leadership (tech and people) can try to find someone else who loves the role you are vacating.

Be a knowledge bearer. Understand that not everything is written down. Because you did good work, people will have questions you’ll need to answer. There needs to be time made for these opportunities as part of your new role.

Embrace Your Space

 The Github offices boast casual spaces near meeting rooms, creating accidental spaces for creativity (and communication) to happen. Photo by  Ben Scholzen

The Github offices boast casual spaces near meeting rooms, creating accidental spaces for creativity (and communication) to happen. Photo by Ben Scholzen

Unless you’re Apple, you’re probably not going to have the resources to create a campus free of physical space divisions. In addition to a heathly transfusion process at the heart of this, you can steal a page from Apple’s philosophy. Make happenstance happen. The more chance encounters teams have, the more likely big problems get caught early.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to reconfigure your space, create natural space that people want to spend time in. Small (unbookable) 2–4 person areas will encourage people to go somewhere to talk, away from their team and into the big bold world.

If you can’t knock down walls, you can at least put meetings on another floor. Getting out of your area means exploring and learning where other teams are and what they are doing.

A Daily Habit

Transfusions and changes in physical space share a common goal: communication. Mixing people up through space, teams, and layout all contribute to the mesh of conversation in the company. It requires rigor until it becomes a behavior.

A post-it on your monitor serves as a good reminder. Make an effort every day. Spend at least a half hour making happenstance happen.

You won’t fix all of a company’s silos, but you can certainly reduce those that interfere with your team’s ability to do amazing things.