How to Overcome Organizational Silos

What are organizational silos?

The literal definition of a silo is a cylindrical structure that’s used to store materials in bulk. Silos are typically used on farms to hold grain, but they can store other materials, such as sawdust or cement. In the context of human resources management, organizational silos describe a phenomenon in which departments or employees within an organization are isolated and unwilling or unable to effectively share information.


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What causes silos in a business?


Absence of team spirit

Silos occur when teams or entire departments lose sight of the big-picture goals that apply to the entire organization. Instead, they focus exclusively on or heavily prioritize the team’s or department’s agenda at the expense of the organization’s objectives. In extreme cases, the team’s goals may be at odds with those of the organization.


Competition for limited resources

When groups within an organization compete for limited resources, organizational silos can result. Periodic budgetary allocations, for example, are often a zero-sum game when resources are provided to one department and denied to another. Highly competitive executives tend to focus on their team’s needs rather than those of the organization.


Inadequate communication

When teams fail to communicate, organizational silos often occur. This starts at the executive level, especially in cases where trust and communication are absent in the leadership team’s decision-making process. For example, department leaders who compete for resources may fail to communicate adequately and may set departmental goals that are at odds with their counterparts.


Overemphasis on immediate results

When groups within the organization focus exclusively on achieving short-term results, organizational silos tend to occur. For example, the product design team might leave out a crucial feature to meet the deadline for a product launch. The team might look efficient because it made the schedule. However, product quality may suffer as a result.


Poorly thought-out incentives

Organizational silos can also be a consequence of misguided incentives. The company may incentivize its teams in a way that sets up team objectives to be at odds with the company’s overall goal. For example, rewarding the sales department only for the number of signed contracts may leave the company with many nonperforming accounts.


How organizational silos get in the way of business success


Silos breed a toxic work culture

Organizational silos create bad relationships among leaders and groups and vice versa. When teams or departments isolate themselves, distrust begins to grow among groups in the organization, especially when leaders have conflicting personalities and agendas. As a result, turf wars may ensue as departmental leaders build clashing empires.


Silos derail company objectives

When silos form within an organization, it increases the risk of imploding as conflicting priorities divide the company. For example, consider a tech start-up in which the engineering, marketing and customer support departments are siloed because of an unhealthy competition for resources. The company’s growth strategy will fall by the wayside as these departments undermine each other. Consequently, an otherwise promising start-up may struggle or fail.


Breaking down silos and improving communication

Breaking down organizational silos enables collaboration across teams and departments. Many managers tend to prioritize vertical relationships even though most will tell you that horizontal teamwork is of the utmost importance when generating value for customers. The interfaces between organizations, departments and teams provide vast opportunities for business development and innovation. Horizontal integration, which is something that many companies struggle to cultivate, is at the heart of the integrated solutions that win customers and foster growth.


Employees whose reach extends beyond their silos gain skills faster and perform better. Cross-silo collaborations enhance customer loyalty and boost margins. Interdisciplinary cooperation also drives innovation. That’s why organizations increasingly favor executives who can build successful multidisciplinary projects.


Restructuring and reorganization is one way to break down silos. However, this approach is slow and can create more problems than it solves. For that reason, many organizations are better off identifying activities that encourage people to cross group boundaries. Organizations should train workers to identify and connect with various intermediaries and experts within the organization.


Effective cross-silo collaboration requires people to learn about and relate to those on the other side. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. An organization’s leaders can facilitate effective interdepartmental relationships in the following ways.


1. Identify and support cross-silo intermediaries

Most companies have their share of people who are naturals at relating to counterparts in other industries, sectors and specialties. Informally, these people are the intermediaries between these domains. Let’s call them cross-silo intermediaries. Top-performing teams in learning organizations typically have one such intermediary.


Leaders should identify and support these people to enhance their impact because they act as a natural bridge across organizational silos. Cross-silo intermediaries enable people from different groups within the organization to seamlessly collaborate with minimal impact on day-to-day productivity. The most effective intermediaries are knowledgeable about the functions and needs of both sides.


For example, a cross-silo intermediary who understands both the world of engineering and marketing can effectively communicate the motivation behind each department’s strategy to the other. As a result, the operations of the marketing and engineering departments steer the organization towards its overall objectives even without the direct interaction of the departments.


Moreover, cross-silo intermediaries can build different groups within the organization and develop lasting relationships based on mutual understanding. These people connect colleagues from different departments and enable collaboration by helping them understand each other’s language. Relationships created by these intermediaries often last long after their direct involvement ends.


2. Cultivate a healthy, inquisitive culture

Asking a lot of questions is the first step to working with colleagues across silos because what people experience on the other side is often different from what you might imagine. Managers with a high level of inquisitiveness tend to develop relationships with colleagues in disconnected parts of the organization.


As people rise through the ranks of their company, they become less inclined to ask questions. High-achievers are especially prone to not seeing things from other people’s perspectives. Furthermore, the fear of looking inept may prevent employees from asking questions when they encounter a knowledge gap.


To encourage curiosity and create a safe space for people to ask questions, leaders need to be role models who teach workers how to ask questions. This encourages employees to adopt similar behaviors by showing interest in other perspectives. Leaders can build organizational values that further reinforce this culture of inquiry by training people on how and when to ask questions.


3. Urge people to proactively consider differing perspectives

In addition to urging people to seek others’ input, leaders should encourage them to actively consider those perspectives. Different teams and departments within an organization see things differently, and this could cause misunderstandings. Learning to take into account others’ perspectives can help to prevent or resolve these differences.


When leaders and members of a group proactively consider others’ viewpoints, it enhances information sharing and shores up the team’s creativity. The senior leaders in an organization are tasked with the responsibility of developing this culture. Most people are perfectly capable of assuming others’ viewpoints; leaders just need to motivate them to do so.


Managers can achieve this by facilitating dialogues across silos and giving preference to curious and empathetic candidates during the hiring process. Facilitating cross-silo discussions enables people to share knowledge and synergize their efforts. Hiring inquisitive, empathetic individuals improves the company’s capacity to accommodate varying perspectives.


4. Widen your employees’ outlook

To produce remarkable results at the interfaces between different groups within the organization, you first need to know where those interfaces are. Encourage people to scan for potential insights beyond their department, team or function. Leaders can widen the horizons of their employees by creating multidisciplinary initiatives and encouraging people to explore networks beyond their immediate environment.


Multidisciplinary teams enable people in silos to learn about different forms of expertise in the company, understand how they are connected and discover how the network of expertise within the organization can translate into highly fruitful collaborations. As a result, employees learn to identify opportunities to generate added value through these interfaces.


Besides pushing employees to work with people from other groups within the organization, leaders should encourage employees to identify and harness expertise from outside the organization or industry. Many business opportunities exist at the interfaces between various disciplines, including business, science, technology, politics, geography, art, humanities and history. The key is to identify disciplines that are relevant to the organization’s overall objectives and strategy.


Demolish organizational silos

In modern business, leaders and employees are aware that synergizing different kinds of expertise within an organization creates long-term value. However, for this to happen, people need the right tools and support for cross-silo collaboration. Leaders can use the four tactics outlined above to facilitate value-generating horizontal collaboration. Doing so could enable people to create productive, lasting relationships beyond their silos.


These practices tie well into each other. Supporting cross-silo intermediaries helps people to be inquisitive and seek others’ perspectives. By doing so, employees become increasingly capable of understanding others’ viewpoints. This, in turn, enables them to identify more pools of expertise. Finally, scanning across networks sheds light on opportunities for valuable collaborations.

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