The Way of the Ninja: Inside Halfbrick’s Ambitious Plan to Eliminate Silos

They were masters of a long-forgotten dark art. Deadly and silent, they could slice through difficult problems as if they were watermelons. The stickiest design problem was no more challenging than a cherry, the dirtiest bug was less distressing than durian fruit. They served only their emperor (or, in this case, their CEO) and then, almost without a sound, they were gone.

In September 2015, Halfbrick Studios, the maker of the popular mobile app Fruit Ninja, eliminated its entire design team. The Australian game designer explained to reporters that it wasn’t because the team was incompetent, but because they were redundant. The designers were holding the developers, artists, and marketers captive, unable to pursue their own design ideas. Without the designers, Halfbrick hoped to enjoy the fruits of a more diverse workforce.

Halfbrick made a bold decision, hoping to reinvigorate a company that has never managed to replicate the success of “Fruit Ninja.” A small tech company can get away with dramatic, sweeping changes, while most larger companies would face a staff revolt in the face of catastrophic change. Halfbrick chose a dramatic solution to a common problem, but there are other ways to reinvigorate your company culture without making fruit salad of an entire department.

Silos Keep Seeds from Bearing Fruit

Halfbrick’s move was an attempt to eliminate silos. In agriculture, a silo keeps seeds separated from things that might make them sprout and bear fruit: soil, water, and sun. In a corporation, silos do the same thing. They reduce contact between departments and make sure information and ideas only flow vertically, never horizontally. They prevent cross-pollination between departments. Silos keep seeds, and ideas, pure and unchanged. That can be great for a farmer who is trying to produce a specific, pure, crop. But for a creative firm? It’s the equivalent of spraying Agent Orange on your vegetable garden.

Creative and innovative companies thrive when there is communication between employees with different ideas, backgrounds, and talents. More interaction means more ideas, more chances to try new things, and a faster decision-making process. Lower-level employees can spot flaws in a design or plan, and the company can change course like a ninja dodging a shuriken on a dark night.

In the last ten years or so, businesses in all industries have begun working towards eliminating silos and bringing new ideas to fruition. However, it’s been decades since former General Electric CEO Jack Welch first vowed to eliminate silos through his Work-Out method, and businesses are still storing their seed corn instead of planting it. In the Work-Out method, people involved in all aspects of a project come together at a single location. They meet, discuss problems, and offer solutions. Someone with authority is on-hand to endorse a solution by the end of the meeting.

Welch used the Work-Out method because it let people solve problems quickly and efficiently. In companies with silos, on the other hand, communications flow up one path to a manager, who then sends them down another path to another department. Issues that are resolved within hours using Work-Out can take weeks when you’re dealing with silos. But in a fast-paced industry like mobile app design, a delay of a few weeks can mean that you lose out to a competitor.

How the Ninja Lost His Stealth

In the beginning, Halfbrick was as nimble as the Fruit Ninjas it brought to life. According to research from the Queensland University of Technology, in 2010 the firm had a flat management structure and a team-based culture. The team working on any given app had a great deal of autonomy, and the firm practiced subsidiarity: every decision was handled at the lowest possible level.

But success made the ninja too fat and sluggish to climb walls and dodge daggers. By 2015, a new hierarchy had arisen at Halfbrick’s once-nimble headquarters. A design department oversaw the work of all the other departments. Instead of ‘teams of talent’ working together in a flexible, creative environment, the development process had grown rigid. As a result, the firm was still living off its earlier successes, not innovating and creating new big winners in the mobile gaming market. The ninja was trapped in a silo, being slowly smothered by the seed it had stored away.

For Halfbrick, eliminating the design team was a move to return the firm to its earlier, silo-free state. Since the world without silos was only five years in the past, most staff still remembered how things were supposed to work. However, if you’re not a recent start-up with a history of a flat management culture, eliminating layers could result in chaos and ruined morale.

Smashing Silos While Dodging Shrapnel

Legacy firms don’t need to take dramatic action to smash silos. For instance, like General Electric, you could adopt the Welch Work-Out method. A Work-Out allows your employees to come together to solve problems without a drastic reshuffling of departments and management. Some firms employ in-house social media apps to create a virtual Work-Out space. Employee chatrooms allow people in different offices and divisions to meet up without having to leave their desks.

Many younger companies have embraced an open floorplan in an attempt to eliminate silos and encourage communication. They’ve had mixed results. While some employees enjoy the social milieu of an open floorplan, others find it harder to work when they’re in a crowd. The best offices develop a compromise: a combination of shared work areas and private spaces, so that workers can choose the space best suited for their current tasks.

Rediscovering the Ninja Within

It’s been about three months since Halfbrick eliminated the last of its design team and returned to a faster, sleeker, more energetic way of developing new products. It’s not clear whether firing the design team reinvigorated the Ninja or simply sent the firm careening in a new direction, and it won’t be for a while. Software development takes time, and Ninjas are invisible until the moment they strike. On the other hand, many creative firms have seen success with the Welch method, open floorplans, or some other agile methodology.

You’re at a fork in the road, and you must choose your future. Will you follow the way of the Ninja, eliminating barriers in a quick (but fatal) manner or the way of the farmer, who, freeing his seed corn from the silo at the end of a long winter, plants the seeds side by side where they can grow, cross-pollinate, and produce magnificent yields?

 



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