06 June 2017

The Way Out of the Silos

Originally published on the National Charrette Institute Blog.

Everything we do at NCI comes from the lessons learned during hundreds of charrettes, spanning 30 years of practice. We call these learnings “The Charrette Way.” Whether in community planning, healthcare, public health policy or product design, today’s complex problems require that we work together more than ever. The challenge is that we are all specialists working in fortified silos, buried in too much work, with too much information, and doing too many things at once. The conventional method for team problem solving is to schedule a series of short weekly meetings.

The pitfalls of the conventional method are:

  • Group memory and momentum is lost between meetings
  • Not enough time is spent together to spark a creative burst
  • Not enough time is spent together to break down the walls of silos – meaning shared learning can’t take hold
  • The team-building process never has a chance to fully develop when it is interrupted too much and occurs in fits and spurts

The Charrette Way is a new method of working collaboratively. It shows us how to break down the single interest silos and efficiently work together, avoiding the endless series of meetings that are all too familiar. Charrettes bring together experts and stakeholders to work collectively, yet single pointedly, to create a design solution. When disparate viewpoints collaborate on a design problem, silos crumble as shared learnings occur.

The following is an example of how a charrette successfully facilitated silo busting. NCI recently ran a neighborhood plan charrette in a large city, where the city planning department led the project. At first, other city departments, notably Public Works, sat on the sidelines. During the charrette, the design team proposed the reconfiguration of a wide arterial street that divided the neighborhood, which was the catalyst to get the Director of Public Works involved. At first, he was concerned that the department budget would not support the proposed changes, but a key learning moment occurred when the Planning Director and the Public Works Director huddled over a drawing of the proposed changes to the arterial street. NCI calls this technique “collaboration by design.” In a conventional meeting, people spend time talking to each other across a table. It is a completely different dynamic when people focus their attention on actual drawings of design solutions, and what is normally a negotiation of positions becomes a joint problem solving exercise. Drawing is one of the most powerful conflict resolution tools and ways to gain a shared vision, and it is important to have a designer at the table to quickly draw ideas as they emerge from stakeholders sharing ideas and asking questions. It is likely that these two department heads had never worked on a design exercise such as this, and the happy result was an agreed upon alternative that could be included in the plan.

In this example, the charrette team was moving ideas forward that affected other agencies – and the Public Works Director was quick to come to the table when he saw that “the train was leaving the station.” Charrettes are a powerful tool to agitate people from their silos and get decision makers to the table.