What Does It Take to Break Down Silos?
Over the past few months, I’ve talked to several non-profit organizations about what it takes to break down silos that impede work. In my experience, the most effective solutions are tailored to the organization and the reasons silos exist. Silos also take time and patience to dissolve.
What are work silos?
Silos are groups within the organization who tend not to support or collaborate with other work groups within the same organization.
In many cases, they are department-based. For example, I worked with an engineering organization whose departments were siloed. The organization’s employees were extremely defensive of the resources within their group, including client contacts, and were reluctant to share them with people in other groups.
Other times, they exist at a team-level, or even an individual-level, within an organization. For example, one nonprofit organization struggled to overcome silos within its competitive development team. However, failure to communicate effectively or share information impeded their effectiveness relative to major donors.
While both of these examples illustrate intentional withholding of resources from colleagues, silo behavior can also stem from unintentional behaviors. For example, an accounting firm client found that people would refer business to competitors even though the organization had those skills in house. When asked why, the accountant would most often say that she or he did not know anyone within the firm who had those skills or did not know the services existed within the organization. The person to whom she or he referred the client was typically someone with whom she or he had worked in the past.
How do silos arise?
Silos begin in many different ways, but they are reinforced by culture. In the first example above, the silo’s source was the organization’s approach to resource allocation. The organization in the second example used divisive approaches to development team members’ performance evaluation and compensation calculations. In the third example, the organization failed to build relationships within the organization. I have also seen silos that are the result of mergers, collective bargaining agreements, the co-existence of seemingly disparate business lines whose business models have changed and converged, and even educational elitism.
While they silos evolve from different circumstances, they thrive because of cultural reinforcement. While executives claim a desire to dissolve silos, they are often reticent to change the structures that support them. For example, a development team whose professionals don’t communicate clings to a compensation structure that rewards donor ownership.
How do you break down silos?
Step One: Identify the Causes. To reduce silo behavior, the organization must begin by understanding the reasons that the behavior has developed and thrived within the organization. Sometimes this is a difficult task for someone who is entrenched in the organization. If the organization is actively hiring, consider asking new hires for help. As the outsider, they may be able to spot systems and processes that are driving dysfunction. An external consultant may also be a helpful resource in this process.
Step Two: Eliminate Disincentives. Once you have identified the root causes, eliminate any disincentive to collaboration. This is the most challenging step for most organizations. The could mean changing physical seating arrangements, compensation or reporting structures, evaluation criteria, information systems, or any of a host of other processes that are encouraging silo behavior.
Step Three: Build Community. People prefer to work with people they know and trust. Unfortunately, building trust takes time. This is particularly true when they have historically competed for outcomes. The organization will need to invest in team-building activities in order to make this happen. This isn’t to say that the group needs to participate in a challenge course or something along those lines! It could be as simple as a meeting to develop joint goals, or the adoption of new tools that promote collaboration.
It is important to do these steps in order. If the incentives for siloes still, any effort to build community, and change the organization’s culture, will fail.
Suggestions for community building to break down silos
As I worked through my thoughts for this article, I ran across a few resources that might be helpful when you get to Step Three.
Reciprocity Ring. This is an exercise that demonstrates the power of collaboration within a group. You can find a description in the following article: How a Culture of Reciprocity Can Tear Down Silos, by Samantha White, published in CGMA Magazine.
Build a Shared Vision and Plan. This article provides some suggestions as to how to make this happen: The Silo Mentality: How to Break Down Barriers, by Brent Gleeson, in Forbes.com.
GE-Style Work-Outs. Jack Welch developed an approach to breaking down silos that was quite effective, and it is profiled in this Harvard Business Review article: Jack Welch’s Approach to Breaking Down Silos Still Works, by Ron Ashkenas.
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