Todays is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For almost 40 years, a wall divided Germans and on this day twenty years ago, the wall was taken down and the reunification of Germany was initiated.

During reunification, there was much difference how people on both sides of the wall had changed since 1961, when the wall was put up. When people loose contact and live in their own separated worlds, they tend to evolve apart.

A parallel can be made for the silo effect we often see in bigger companies. People are regrouped along their department: research and development, administration, management, marketing, sales, etc. While we would expect people to work together to achieve a common goal, in bigger teams, sub-teams form and have a tendency to work independently. After some time has passed, the whole project teams reunites and the project manager is confronted to two team whose idea of the project may not be compatible. 

These social walls – where hermetic teams are created and function independently from the rest of the project team – end up creating more conflicts than they solve in the long run. Before we can think about ways to tear those walls down, we should understand them. 

A walled team or just a good team that works well together?

  • Close-knit teams are good. They are teams where people work well together and have high cohesion. These teams are not necessarily closed: they will accept new members and input from outside the team.
  • Hermetic teams are bad. The team will not accept new team members or input from outside their team. Typically, those teams will also not interact well with the rest of the project team. 

Why put up walls?

People create walls in their environments to protect themselves.

  • Sometimes it's to be able to focus without interruption. 
  • Sometimes it's because they prefer to work in a smaller team. 
  • Other times, the corporate culture creates distrust between departments.

How can we remove the walls?

Those walled-up teams sometimes evolve naturally, and the people in it may not realize what's going on. Talking with the team is a good starting point. The second step would be to weigh the benefit of leaving the team together, compared to breaking the team up and assigning the members to different projects or different parts of the project, to encourage them to work with others more.

In more extreme cases, it may be required to involve a neutral party – external to the project – to help solve the situation.

Where are the walls in your projects?

Walls are not necessarily physical or social in our projects. They can also be informational, technological, or even financial. 

In honor of the men and women who fought to tear down the wall between Eastern Europe and Western Europe, let us identify a problem barrier in our projects and think about ways to remove it.