Silo Busting The Dominant Paradigm

Amid the wild uncertainty of a global pandemic, political corruption, social upheaval and natural disasters, the impact of poor leadership has become increasingly clear. Command-and-control style leaders may drive action and change but create dysfunctional, polarised cultures in the process. To navigate a rapidly changing world, leaders must evolve their mindset from a hierarchy of authority to a network of competence. 

Hierarchies of authority inevitably lead to organisational siloes that tend to become barriers to horizontal communication and the sharing of knowledge and data – key features of an agile organisation’s success in the collaboration age. Worse, managers in siloes tend to focus on promoting the interests of their own silo ahead of the mission and vision of the whole organisation. The budget also tends to turn into a battle among siloes for a larger share of the organisational pie. This is when we see the rise of “spend it or lose it” behaviours.

Hanging on to hierarchy in the 21st century is either a case of laziness or greed. Most executives have spent their careers working in steep hierarchies, while submitting to the directives of their bosses as they climbed their way up the corporate ladder. Now, having defeated their rivals and arrived at the top of the pyramid, it is natural for them to want to hold on to power as the prize that they have worked so hard for, and won. However, when an executive finally makes it to the top, they tend to find themselves overwhelmed. A CEO will typically inherit a steep hierarchy and may not even be aware there is an alternative for running the business as a network. Or they may choose to stick to the hierarchy of authority through a misconception of the nature of power. 

There is an erroneous belief that power comes from being at the summit of a hierarchy, being able to issue directives to subordinates, and demand reporting on the status of this and that. Here’s the thing: trying to have a finger in every pie is counter-productive. The silos tend to only share the good news and keep emerging problems to themselves in the hope that the problem will be resolved or go away. The more CEOs try to be the ultimate decision-maker for everything, the greater the risk that information will be harder for them to get. When measurable responsibility and accountability are in place for those who actually implement things, CEOs can focus on their real job: envisioning and creating the future.

“As a leader, it’s your job to get everyone to share what they know.”
― Jane Ripley

6 Problems With Silos

Silos can occur in global corporations or small start-ups with only ten employees. And no matter the size, they are detrimental to an organisation’s ability to succeed in a rapidly changing world. It’s also important to note that, while we do not tend to visualise it this way, silos can be vertical or horizontal. Individual units can have high barriers between them or senior leadership can be completely isolated from lower management levels.

1. Putting the ‘parts’ before the ‘whole’.

Siloed thinking leads to managers only being focused on the interests of their own organisational unit, inducing them to pursue seemingly worthwhile agendas in their own areas which may be at odds with the agendas of other units and of the overall organisation.

2. Personal agendas and damaging politics. 

The focus on personal interests means damaging politics and the development of conflicts between leaders of different units. Turf wars and power struggles hinder collaboration and ultimately, performance. This also creates a lack of trust between employees from these units and a feeling of “us against them”.

3. Fosters complacency.

People can be so focused on their agendas and on the politics generated around their silo that they lose sight of customers and what matters most to them. When people in different divisions have little contact with each other, it’s easy to become inwardly focused and complacent with the status quo. They miss new opportunities and hazards coming from competitors or customers and changes in the regulatory environment.

4. Withholding resources and information.

The lack of communication and cooperation between silos negatively affects organisational performance because insights around potential opportunities are not shared or are lost. In this way, threats are also not recognised in a timely manner. The hoarding of information also causes a lack of shared learning and innovation. People may disregard facts that do not support their own viewpoint. A ‘not-invented-here’ mentality develops that further hurts performance improvements.

5. Inhibiting learning, innovation, and improvement.

Pockets of excellence might exist but, because of silos, they will be isolated and therefore difficult to leverage across the organisation. As a result, it is impossible for the organisation to become high performing because not enough units profit from the ideas, experience, and skills of other units.

6. Motivational and morale problems.

Because each silo has its own agenda, people receive mixed messages about priorities, which creates confusion and ambiguity that can lead to organisational dysfunction. Silos are a common source of employee frustration. They create delays in ‘getting things done’ and ‘seeing things through’, which is detrimental to the motivation and engagement of employees who want to see an impact and outcome for their efforts. In addition, silos can make it difficult for people to establish deeper relationships with people they regularly have to work with in different units, causing feelings of isolation. 

“The word “silo” does not just refer to a physical structure or organization (such as a department). It can also be a state of mind. Silos exist in structures. But they exist in our minds and social groups too. Silos breed tribalism. But they can also go hand in hand with tunnel vision.”
― Gillian Tett

4 Beliefs Associated With Siloed Mentality

Before breaking down silos and associated barriers to cross-group collaboration, we first have to understand why barriers and silos are created and/or exist in the first place. Here are four beliefs regarding why silos exist and persist within organisations today:

1. Knowledge and Certainty

People within silos come to believe they hold specific knowledge that is well known and understood within the silo and is not understood outside of the silo. The silo provides a safe place for their knowledge and certainty of how things should be done. Others outside of the silo “don’t get it” or don’t know.

2. Belonging and Shared Purpose  

Silos are micro-entities with their own microculture within the larger organisation. These micro-entities often have a clear, shared purpose that makes belonging much easier. Associating your place and identity within a silo is much easier but it comes at the expense of creating networks of tribes – belonging to the silo first, organisation second.

3. Fear and Scarcity

Fear plays a big role in the existence of silos. People fear a loss of perceived control over an area for which they are responsible. They believe that resources and knowledge are limited and even scarce. This results in protecting the resources and knowledge of the silo for fear that “outsiders” will compromise them.

4. Lack of Control

Many leaders believe it is much easier to get things done by running the smaller world of the silo than to integrate their area into a greater whole. There are fewer people to coordinate with, fewer people involved in decision-making, and faster cycles – all things we believe we can and must control within our silo.

“An employee’s inability to be wrong, obsessed with their personal agenda, or complacency with the comfort of their title and paycheck often keeps them stuck in selfish politics and silo mentalities.”
― Angela Lynne Craig

Shifting Out of the Confines of a Siloed Mindset

Knowing the key beliefs behind the existence of silos, we can learn how to replace them with new ways of thinking. New mental models will help us integrate people, ideas and action across multiple teams while making our organisations more flexible in their ability to respond to challenges. Here are four ways to break down silos and the walls between us at work.

From Certainty to Curiosity

Silos, by definition, are discrete areas where people work together under a common purpose to develop expertise that adds value to the greater organisation. That expertise is fundamental to the organisation’s ability to thrive. However, that same expertise may result in rigid certainty where the people within the silo believe they are the owners of what can be known about a particular subject. In this way, they are not easily open to other groups that appear to have little or no experience in their area of expertise. Busting silo mentality requires having that same expertise combined with a belief that the perspectives of others can be complementary. Therefore, we must become curious about other perspectives and possibilities. With an awareness that all people and groups have blind spots, a new paradigm of openness and curiosity allows us to collaborate and create value with groups outside of our own.

Expanded Belonging and Greater Purpose

Just as having a common purpose can hold a smaller group or silo together, expanding the purpose with others can make working outside the silo easier. We often believe that sharing a larger purpose may result in it becoming less meaningful for the individual. It is important to explore and determine the impact each role has with regard to supporting a larger purpose. 

From Fear and Scarcity to Confidence and Abundance

Most groups within organisations tend to work with a mindset of scarcity. This creates a competitive posture for talent, resources, and budget. A mindset of scarcity avoids risk and fears losing time or money. By contrast, a mindset of abundance believes that there is always enough and seeks to build relationships and collaborations in order to realise more of what they seek. This is a mentality of thriving versus surviving. Believing in abundance requires having confidence in your capabilities. Confidence allows you to see more opportunity with fewer constraints. Poorly equipped teams lack skills and capabilities. This, in turn, reinforces their mindset of scarcity. 

From a Lack of Control to Ability to Respond

Silos often persist because we believe that elements outside of the silo are also outside of our control. This may be true for a variety of reasons, including worldviews, beliefs, attitudes and education that are different than those shared within the silo. And yet, within the complexity of people and relationships lies the greatest leverage for busting silos. By exploring our ability to respond to the challenge of these relationships, we can design processes or road maps to organise the task being shared. 

“We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”

—Daniel Kahneman

Breaking Down Silos

Are you surprised to hear about projects taking place in other divisions?

Are these projects well underway, without your ever knowing about them?

Do you communicate infrequently with other leaders around the organisation?

Have you been championing a project for a while, and a large subset of the organisation doesn’t know about it or understand why you are doing it?

If you answered YES to any of these questions, there is a very good chance that silos are present in your organisation. To eliminate silos you must bring people across the organisation together. There are several ways you can do this:

Bring the outside inside.

Make space and time for divisions to share data with each other so everyone understands how each division is performing, any customer concerns, and where there is room for improvement. Make it clear this is an important opportunity to galvanise action, rather than being some version of the blame game. Reframe any changes that must be made as organisational, not divisional.

Focus on opportunity, not crisis.

While a crisis can be a catalyst for action, fear also can send people running for the hills. If you reframe the organisation’s need to break down silos as a positive opportunity, you will see more people raising their hand to do it. Help people in different divisions understand how they have a chance to make the organisation better and more powerful by eliminating the barriers between divisions or management levels.

Wall Busting Champions

Bring together a team of people committed to changing the way the organisation operates, composed of people from all levels, divisions and locations. Do not pick this team. People must apply for it so you can gauge their level of commitment. Ensure this team has enough:

  • Key players so those left out cannot block change
  • People who represent all relevant points of view
  • Credibility so that the group’s pronouncements will be taken seriously
  • Skilled managers and proven leaders to drive the change process

Once formed, hold an inaugural in-person meeting that allows the champions to connect to each other and build trust. Set regular meetings, such as quarterly in-person gatherings and bi-weekly conference calls, to maintain momentum. Encourage group members to communicate outside of organised meetings and, more importantly, filter messages about the group’s activities to others in their respective divisions or offices. Ensure the senior leaders stay closely involved with the champions. Without this involvement, the group cannot realise the necessary change.

“Every established order tends to make its own entirely arbitrary system seem entirely natural.”

—Pierre Bourdieu

Exercise - A Quick Win for Any Business

Silos arise because we like being comfortable. We tend to get a faster sense of accomplishment when we do the easy thing. Breaking down silos demands an investment of time, energy, and resources. Because we can always find another, easier place to direct that energy, we must realise that the most worthwhile things are often the hardest to do. If you care about reaching your organisational goals, you must get started. So, you are a leader in a siloed organisation. One smart yet overlooked opportunity to foster collaboration is a workplace design project. People from diverse departments can cross the divide and collaborate on a common goal – their physical work environment – with visible, tangible, and mutually beneficial results.

1. Choose a high-visibility project.

Pick a project that’s ‘out there’ on display. Something that promotes communal thinking and clear outcomes. It doesn’t need to require a large investment, so size isn’t important. Something like redecorating the lunch room.

2. Create a cross-functional team.

Have as many diverse voices and viewpoints as possible. By integrating viewpoints from diverse departments, and making sure each area has skin in the game, the results will be better aligned with the company culture and better received by the broader population.

3. Accentuate accountability.

Hold the project team accountable for the best-possible process and results. Celebrate progress during team meetings and in companywide communications to help bridge departmental divide and cultivate trust. In this way you are demonstrating a collaborative workforce.

“Silo thinking builds the wall in people’s minds and sets barriers in the human’s hearts.”

— Pearl Zhu

Tear Down the Walls

Silos exist because they support what we believe about ourselves, our work and our organisation. When we believe we know something and others do not, we create silos. When we limit our shared purpose, we create silos. When we have a scarcity mindset of limited resources, we create silos to compete for and protect our resources. When we seek to feel in control, we build walls that keep out whatever is outside of our control – we create silos.

The answer to busting silos begins with shifting our beliefs about ourselves, our work and our organisation. We can shift from knowledge with false certainty to having knowledge combined with curiosity, where we believe the input of others outside our silo can be complementary and add value. We can expand our purpose to be shared with others and bring down walls between us. We can build our capabilities to have the confidence required to see abundance and opportunity versus fear and scarcity. By focusing on our ability to respond, we can expand our impact on others as well as the task at hand, allowing silos to open so collaboration can flourish across all departmental lines.

“With silo mentality, organisations lose their collaborative advantage as they are being over managed and under led.”

— Pearl Zhu


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