The company's vice chairman, John G. Rice, describes GE’s efforts to bust silos, boost collaboration, and build an internal marketplace of ideas and solutions.
The GE I work for now is not the same company as the one I joined in 1978. Today, we operate on the premise that our whole is greater than the sum of the parts, exchanging ideas and solutions across GE. Close to 70 percent of our business now takes place outside the United States, so this networking exchange needs to reach far and wide.
The problem, of course, is that as businesses grow larger, more silos start to pop up. It’s not always easy for employees to stay connected or to view sharing as a competitive advantage. That has been GE’s challenge: how to connect more than 300,000 people, operating in over 180 countries, without adding more process and bureaucracy that slows them down. Without a radical shift in everyday working behavior, silos will remain.
We don’t have the perfect answer, but we are investing in ways to facilitate an internal marketplace that enables individuals and businesses to contribute or tap into ideas, inventions, and practices. When our approach works, it has helped us speed up development times and accelerate problem solving. When it does not work, we have a Game of Thrones scenario—silos and fiefdoms.
While we’re still on the journey, one lesson is paramount: nothing changes without the right culture. Along with the technical solutions, here are five steps we’re taking to create a new team culture and establish a new way of working:
1. Create a network effect.
We encourage GE employees to reach out to employees in other departments around the world to share or ask for ideas and tips. We recently created a virtual forum that connected over 30,000 employees across ten businesses in 91 countries to share insights. One of the results was a project leader in our Power business in Europe identifying a solution he needed from the Australia Oil and Gas team, who had earlier worked with the Aviation services team in Singapore. We’re also investing in digital tools like sites and apps to make it easier for our teams to identify the right inputs and partners—for any project. At the core, we’re working to eliminate silo thinking.
2. Get to "why" early, and establish an underlying "yes" philosophy.
When an internal network works, it’s because everybody understands that there is a mission to deliver for a customer. That means creating teams that understand the importance of the mission, starting with the why, find ways around obstacles, get past no, and get to yes. Strong leadership and intervention are often required to get everyone to yes and drive a must-win mentality. This means aligning the priorities across the team and agreeing on shared metrics for the common endeavor, whether that is a Power deal in North Africa or Gas project in the Middle East.
3. Hunt in packs.
There is no confusion in a well-oiled team. Everyone is working to accomplish both the team goals and their own personal goals. Nothing of substance happens in GE without a team. When we worked with Centrais Elétricas de Sergipe (CELSE) for Brazil’s Porto de Sergipe combined-cycle power plant, five different vertical business teams aligned as one to meet the customer demand for a one-stop shop. If we hadn’t, we would have won only a third of the deal.
4. Move at market speed.
Solutions and business models for places as diverse as Japan, Nigeria, and Pakistan require local knowledge and speed as much as global industry expertise. We must move at a speed that’s determined by customers and by markets. The last three years in India, for example, have seen fast changes brought about by the new government, bringing with it infrastructure spending increases of 22.5 percent. The market also is highly competitive. Five years ago, we decided to invest in an extremely flexible manufacturing facility in India where different products for multiple businesses are built under the same roof. We invested more than $200 million, and in less than three years that investment has paid off.
5. Be the dog with the bone.
Breaking down silos is tough. Individuals must have persistence and make it part of their personal leadership journey. It is up to the individual leading a team to be both a contributor and an extractor, giving people an opportunity to say they see things they don’t think add value or to explain why it’s worthwhile to do something differently. But it still requires personal intervention, where leaders interject to align on metrics and outcomes, or it can involve knocking on enough doors internally before you get the right solution.
People often think about the marketplace as something that happens primarily on the outside. But the key insight from our efforts has been the business value of an internal marketplace. When the transportation industry went into a downturn and orders for our locomotive business dropped off, for example, our Transportation team worked with Aviation and our software division GE Digital to create a new business model and build a successful parts business. The transition from new build to fleet modernization happened in months rather than years.
The best marketplaces create as much value as your people put into and take from them. And for me, it’s always about the outcomes. Otherwise, just call it a work happy hour.
(Top image: Courtesy Getty Images.)
This piece is based on an article originally published in McKinsey Quarterly. Copyright (c) 2017 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
All views expressed are those of the author.