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Amanda Costello

Amanda Costello

The Bureau Briefing: Episode 035

Silos. We've been taught they are bad. They hurt productivity, culture, and quality. But what if we're wrong? Amanda Costello shares her insights on embracing silos as the natural order of the human condition. Her experiences in higher ed build a strong case that silos can actually improve not only the work we do but the relationships with our teams.

Be sure and see Amanda's talk on How Silos Learn: Working in the Idea Factory at the Digital PM Summit this October 15-17 in Las Vegas. Get your tickets now!

 

Announcer:
Welcome to The Bureau Briefing, a podcast by the Bureau of Digital and Organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support they never had. Each episode we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now, for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:
Welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. It is Carl, and with me today I have got Amanda Costello, a content strategist from the University of Minnesota. How's it going Amanda?

Amanda Costello:
It's going great.

Carl Smith:
 It's great to have you on the show. I have to say, we spoke for a few minutes before we started, and you are my favorite person. There are some other people who would be upset to hear that, but they're probably not even listening to the show, so for that reason alone, they are not my favorite person. 

Amanda Costello:
They don't need to know. It's a secret.

Carl Smith:
You are fun.

Amanda Costello:
Thanks.

Carl Smith:
I can't wait to see you get up on stage at the Digital PM Summit, which is this October 15th through 17th in Las Vegas. That is what we call subtle, totally under the radar. Nobody picked up that I was just pushing the event. 

Amanda Costello:
No, it's awesome. It’s also a secret.

Carl Smith: You're going to talk about silos learn. 

Amanda Costello:
Yeah. I've been working in higher ed for about 10 years. Although my job is content strategy, I wind up doing a lot the roles of PM and using PM in best practices because we just don't have a lot of people for individual things. Everyone winds up doing what they can. We're always short on resources, people, time, money, space. It's kind of everyone chipping in and doing the best thing that they can instead of having one dedicated PM for each project. 

Carl Smith:
This is weird to me that you're in higher ed and yet you know about silos.

Amanda Costello:
Surprise.

Carl Smith:
From my experience, you don't have silos in higher ed.

Amanda Costello:
I've heard a lot. I've been talking about silos for a couple of years, but one of the best things I've heard about them ... There's a friend of mine, Devon, he just started working at Shopify and he gave a presentation once where he said that in higher ed silos are not just a bureaucratic necessity, but they are a closely guarded way of life. Because of the industry, if you will, or the institution of higher education is so old, it's over a thousand years old if you think about Oxford or Fez in Morocco, that Harvard was founded more than 100 years before America started up ... 

Even though we don't do things, obviously, the same as they did in Oxford 900 years ago, it's the same tradition of learning. That just leads everyone to feel that we rightly are a part of a longer bigger thing that's been going on for a very long time. The organizational silos that show up model that history as well. Sometimes when you talk about changing things up, it's not only saying to the person, we should do things differently, how you're doing it isn't good, but it can be interpreted as, how your industry is working isn't doing it well, or your organization is bad. People will just bring it on a very personal level very quickly.

Carl Smith:
Well, I'm really disappointed to hear that we're not operating like Oxford did 900 years ago. 

Amanda Costello:
Well, here's a big difference. I'm here and I'm a woman. That wouldn't have happened.

Carl Smith:
What I said was, I am so glad we don't do things the way they used to in Oxford. You obviously misunderstood me. I can absolutely appreciate silos in higher ed. If you look at it, you've got professors, people getting up on stage. Our industry loves talking about imposter syndrome, a phrase that I think should just be changed to human condition because we all suffer from it. In your talk, silos learning ... I've always been told that silos were bad thing. It's one of those things you try to get rid of, the silos. It prevents you from truly being able to collaborate and create great things together. You're saying silos aren't bad.

Amanda Costello:
Yeah, and one of the things that I think is ... Not misleading about my talk, but people will hear the word silos and they think, let's breakdown silos. They're bad. They're wrecking productivity. They're this terrible thing. The case that I make in my talk is actually that silos are the structure we want and that they can be used as a framework instead of a container, that it's actually a good structure to build on, to make a better system. Silos and the grouping that we do as human beings is sociological necessity. It happens. It's how we do culture. It's how we relate to each other. It came out of evolution. Human being are going to form groups and you can't stop them from doing it. Instead of saying, no, this should just be flat, there should be no silos, we use our silos to ... You can build on the structure that you've already got to make something good instead of trying to tear it down and start over again and again.

Carl Smith:
My company was flattish. We actually would call it lumpy because there's always going to be some people who care more and they stand up and they lead. I, obviously, was not the leader at my company. What's interesting to me is we did have cowboy coders and we had groups that wanted to work in isolation. I saw it as my job to actually breakdown those silos. What I found was, as I was breaking them down they were all Cask of Amontillado back there, building them back up. You're saying this is the natural state, that this is way we are as humans?

Amanda Costello:
Yeah. One of my other weird hobbies, I have a lot of weird hobbies and I love them all. One of them is I really love historical architecture. I'll say I take architecture breaks, I will go find the big beautiful buildings and just spend time in them because it's a wonderful place for me. I read, How Buildings Learn, which is by Stewart Brand. He did the whole art catalog. It talks about how a building has many components to it and the different kinds of components can change based on what the human need is for the building, because buildings and architecture are all human inventions to serve different purposes. 

I applied the same kind of ideas that Brand applies to physical architecture to organizational structure and said, if you can teach a building you can teach an organizational silo, because I'm in the Midwest so I'm surrounded by a whole bunch of, honestly, grain elevators, multiple silos together that are abandoned because things have changed. Agriculture changed and transportation changed and now we have a whole lot of ... There's a huge complex probably a block from campus that has 187 abandoned silos in just that one complex. People are thinking about reusing these all over the country. You can see them all over the place. They're just not in use anymore, but it doesn't mean that they just need to be torn down.

Carl Smith:
What are the ideas for how they're going to repurpose them?

Amanda Costello:
The actual grain elevators?

Carl Smith:
Yeah.

Amanda Costello:
Some of the examples that I give in the talk, a lot of them along the riverside have been ... There's one that was used for projection art. There was an art piece that was installed along the river where people lay down and then different images would be projected up onto the curved walls of the grain elevator. Mural art, mural competitions have been very common throughout the Midwest. You'll have large complexes that then a city or a town will have a contest for a mural artist to be able to put large scale art. They are very big canvases. 

I've been in a silo that's been converted to an indoor rock climbing area to do really challenging things. They moved the little pegs around on the wall. There is a series of condos on the north side of a lake in Minneapolis that their shell is an old grain elevator. There used to be train that was there and there's not anymore. The grain elevators are there so some developer converted them to condos. A lot of people are taking a look at it and saying, this was built to be this thing to hold crops and grain and silage but now it's structure. What can the structure do and how can we change different elements of the structure to make it a different thing based on what people need or want in this area.

That's what I talk about, and then also what can stay. If you tore down a silo then you would also, in some cases, be tearing down a canvas for large scale art. If you're saying it's not a silo, it's a physical concrete canvas. Now we've got a canvas. What do you put on the canvas? That's the connection that I make to organizational silos. 

Carl Smith:
I'm curious, what led you to higher ed?

Amanda Costello:
I've almost always been in higher ed. I feel like it's a culture and it's community that makes a lot of sense to me. The pace, I feel like really fits me and I really love the work that I get to represent with content strategy and project management. Before that after I graduated from college I lived and worked in Japan for two years. I did some English and I worked in the JET with the Japanese government. 

Carl Smith:
How do you go from working on the JET program to content strategy? Hey, if you weren't very good, it's okay. Just let people know.

Amanda Costello:
The JET program, it's the Japan Exchange in Teaching. I'm not an engineer. I wish I was. It's an acronym. That's another higher ed thing. 

Carl Smith:
I'm good with that. I knew that. 

Amanda Costello:
I taught for two years. It was really wonderful. I really especially loved the students I got to work with in Japan. I helped a lot of them figure out how to study abroad. English was compulsory in Japanese schools and I had some kids who were like, I don't want to learn this. I don't want to travel. I don't want to go to America or Australia. I'm never going to use English. Why am I learning this? I told them that even if they never ever speak another word of English, if they never hear another word of English studying a second language will help you be better at your first language. This is a way to get better at Japanese, which I can guarantee you you will use. They're like, oh. I loved working with students and I had students interested in study abroad. When I came back to the states I had thought about going into some sort of academic advising and being able to be conduit to help students figure out how to get abroad and how to have experiences in other countries. 

I got the job at the university because at the time, if you worked here, you could get a big discount on your tuition. I was like, why pay for my masters degree when I can work here and have most of it covered. I also came back the year before the recession so there were jobs to be had. I just needed a job. I got a job here working in one of our research centers and noticed that our website was not the greatest and it needed some changes. 

Carl Smith:
You're saying that the university website wasn't good. 

Amanda Costello:
I know. I really thought that mine was the only bad one. I was like, how am I so isolated with the only one bad higher ed website?

Carl Smith:
In my experience you must have hit an anomaly. What did you do to fix this travesty of a website?

Amanda Costello:
Well, at the time I emailed whoever was in charge of the website, who turned out was Jeff, who is now my boss, and said, hi, our website needs blah, blah, blah and this and that. He was like, it sounds like you know what you're doing, and he essentially threw me the keys to the website. 

Carl Smith:
What? That is both awesome and terrifying. 

Amanda Costello:
He was like, you don't need to run this through me. You can figure it out. I started to do that and I made my own sites. I had to do a city site growing up and I learned html so I could make it just so ... I started working on our website and led us through a website redesign. Then in 2010 I got a position in one of our academic departments doing their departmental website and I also went to MinneWebCon, which is a local web conference here in Minneapolis and one of the keynote speakers had just written a book a few months beforehand and it was Kristina Halvorson talking about content strategy. I was also to go to grad school. I'd taken the GREs. I'd been admitted and I got back to my desk and I called them and I said, I'm not coming. This is what I want to do. This is exactly the work that I want to do. 

Carl Smith:
You read Kristina's book and you go, this is it. This is what I want to do.

Amanda Costello:
I heard her talk about it. She gave the keynote. It was just a thousand light bulbs going off in my head of not only this is what we need, but this is what I want to do. This is how I want to use my skills and my understanding to make sense of the world for other people. This is how I contribute to the content that I get to represent. It was amazing.

Carl Smith:
We worked with the University of Florida and there's no more argumentative scattered just blown apart concept than how a university and it's colleges are going to work together. It just truly is a mess. Now, a few weeks ago we had the persona, a digital project manager, who managed the entire redevelopment, really, of the University of Syracuse's website. Getting the university and the colleges together and they did it in 18 months. That's amazing. I was blown away. I'm curious, when you look at your project, how did you organizeuniversities and the colleges?

Amanda Costello:
I'm not at the university level. I'm actually at the college level in one of our colleges. I'm in education, human development. 

Carl Smith:
Get ready for that to change because this podcast is going to open doors for you. 

Amanda Costello:
I think what we do a lot is we have a lot of little mantras that we have on our team. One of them is choose trust over control. That's one of my boss' big phrases. That's what he did with me when he just passed me the keys to the website. We have backups that are made every night and if I screw up super hard we can just roll it back and we've only lost a day's work. That's what we do. We also have something that's unique at higher ed, and I think in a lot of organizations, we have a dedicated content strategist in each one of our academic departments as well someone just dealing with our undergraduate student services, someone focusing on our graduate experience and someone focusing on our research centers and then me at the college level pulling that all together. 

There is enough things that make our departments unique and special that if we had one content strategy for the college and said, the college is this, and push that down that would be doing a disservice to the differences in our department and the departments and the majors in the programs are what our what students really identify with. Instead of that, our content strategists in the departments can give me a picture of each department and their goals and their culture and what's going on with them. I can find the connecting threads. Instead of a cover that goes over all of our departments it's kind of like I'm a supportive surface. If they were all little winter time snow village setup with each little building I would be the wonderful antique buffet with the lace countertop to display them on. I figure out what strategy supports the commonalities instead of trying to force sameness on all of them.

Carl Smith:
Listening to you talk about it and the passion in your voice I'm disappointed we'll never get to work together. 

Amanda Costello:
Thank you.

Carl Smith:
How often do you get together with the other content strategists?

Amanda Costello:
We're like you said about University of Florida, we're very widespread. We're in multiple buildings across two cities. There's a Minneapolis campus of University of Minnesota that's on both sides of the Mississippi River. Then we have another campus probably about four or five miles away in Saint Paul. That is also surrounded by big agricultural test fields but we have buildings and apartments spread across these campuses. Most of the time people are operating almost like armies of one, especially in the department. I'm on a web team of five folks, but what we do is, once a month, we get together and we do co-working. We have a big Central meeting area in our offices with a screen if we want to hook something up and just have the bonus of working around other people, being able to shout out, hey, I have this idea, what do people think? Does this sound dumb or weird? We can get feedback from a lot of people and we find the boost in creativity that comes just from hearing your colleagues ideas. We treat it as a distributed team even though they don't report to me.

Carl Smith:
That sounds great. We're huge fans of distributed. We call it people over pixels, that need to still get together even though you are distributed. That sounds really great. What do you do when you guys are together?

Amanda Costello:
We talk about who's watched this TV-show or blah, blah, blah. I saw this thing ... Or we'll take turns throwing our monitors up onto the big screen to be like, funny video time, just that part of being friends with your coworkers and having commonalities, and saying, okay, we're all human beings that are trying to get this work done on. It's also a good chance for me to figure out if we've got a niche on our team to do something new. We want to try something out. I could say, all right, everyone has a need in their departments to display faculty profiles, and our teams come up with a new idea on how to do that. What do you all think?

Someone might say, you know what, right now our department is having a ton of politics. We have a lot of change going on, and I think this would just rock the boat too much. Someone else can say, you know, we have a new department chair and they really want to try new things. They really want to be a part of this. We'll give it a shot, no problem. They'll sign off on this right away. Then a third person will say, we might be up for that, but if that department could do it first then our chair will say, oh yes, now we definitely want this. We motivate that way. We'll have departments that are cool at trying stuff out, and then if it works other departments will say, hey, we want that.  We could say, great. If you want this, this is the way we do it. Here's how or process works. Here's what we do, and we go along that way.

Carl Smith:
The interesting thing to me, in the way that you're working, is well, humans, we have this need to be independent but also be part of a group. You're embracing that natural order of how we work together. That's just refreshing, instead of trying to change it.

Amanda Costello:
Silos are frustrating and can be toxic and harmful, and that's why many people are upset by them, but I think jumping straight to the solution of tear them down doesn't work, and even if it is ... Like you said, with your position at your company you were able to tear down silos, but again, it was because you were at the top. That's really the only way that a silo can actually be dismantled. It's very hard to do from the middle, where most people are. Then, like you said, you saw people start to rebuild them. They would brick them back up. I don't think, one, tearing down silos isn't something that everyone has access to nor do I think it's the best course of action.

I was just at Confab Central last week here in Minneapolis nerding out really hard about content strategy for a whole week. My boss called me with a work thing one day, and he's like, "Hi, sorry to interrupt church." I'm like, yeah, it's pretty true. We were talking about this and someone asked, "If you were given an organization and it was completely flat, they had a flat set up going on, what would you do with that? First I asked, is it a problem that it's totally ... Do they want organizational change? But, if they did, I said, "I would build silos and I would build them strategically. I would build them for collaboration but I would also build them so people can have team and group identity," because people will build that structure. If you give a bird a birdhouse to build a nest in, it will build the nest. If you don't, it will build the nest somewhere else. It's giving folks constraints and giving encouraging structure. It's like good design principles, that if people want to walk somewhere they will walk there. If you build a path there, they will then walk on the path.

Carl Smith:
Amanda, I am so glad that we had this opportunity to reconnect today. I'm super excited to see you in October at the Digital PM Summit, and it's actually our 5th one. That's just remarkable to think that this has been happening for 5 years, that Digital PMs have been getting together.

Amanda Costello:
I hadn't realized that until I looked it up on the website. It was like, the fifth one. I had a blast at the last one and I've recommended it to people who don't even work just as dedicated PMs. Like, my job is not a PM, but I wind up doing a lot of work of a PM, because the best practices and the new ideas and everything that I learned at the last one I'd attended in Austin still come back, and they're able to be implemented on even small stuff to make projects run even a little bit smoother.

I came back to work with so much I could use right away, but I came back with stuff that took me longer but still had a big effect. Sometimes people say, why go to that conference? I can just read a blog post about the 10 top blah blah blah. I certainly got a lot of, hey, try this tool or look at this thing, but I got strategies from the last one that could be implemented over time and show really, a lasting effect. I'm super excited to come back ... Not only I'm excited to speak but as a learner. It's great.

Carl Smith:
Now, if anybody listened to that and isn't thinking about going, I don't know what we have to do. Thanks for listening to this episode of The Bureau Briefing and we'll talk to you soon. Have a great one.

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