Silos and the silo mentality can have potentially devastating consequences for modern organizations, but when it comes to defeating them, there’s an important misconception we should clear up.
Silos aren’t inherently bad; they’re just a product of a work model which was far less cross-functional than it is today. Our understanding of “productivity” revolved around each department handling discrete functions of company missions, with little overlap between teams. Silos would form out of a need for increased specialization and vertical efficiencies within these functions.
Now, however, work needs to be more collaborative and cross-functional than ever. That same efficiency that allows information to travel vertically in silos does not extend horizontally across departments. We saw the consequences of silo culture play out publicly just a few years ago with GM’s faulty ignition switch controversy. Multiple departments within the corporation had “pieces of information” that could have resolved the issue, but because they didn’t communicate outside of their silos (along with other toxic cultural behaviors), GM manufactured millions of unsafe cars, resulting in civilian fatalities and a very public investigation.
While most consequences of silo culture are not so extreme, their effects are nonetheless pernicious. Lack of innovation, deprioritization of important company goals and drops in productivity all arise when important information gets gummed up in the works and orphaned within a departmental structure that’s not suited to accommodate it. So when we talk about “defeating silos,” what we really mean is that we’re trying to preserve those vertical efficiencies while expanding their effects horizontally.
It’s important to note that silos aren’t just created by work models, but also work mentalities. As with anything pertaining to workplace culture, the attitudes and actions of leaders reverberate throughout the company and are reflected in the way departments operate. If a leader emphasizes unhealthy competition or favoritism towards a particular department, you can bet teams will operate in more insular fashion, hoarding information and resources to justify their individual value. The irony, of course, is that these resources would be more valuable if shared across the organization.
So when you set out to silo-proof your organization, you need to eliminate mental barriers as well as organizational ones. Here’s where you can begin.
Start with a startup mentality
As a first step, leaders need to wage war against the silo mentality by introducing cross-functional work as a survival need. This requires a complete shift in company thinking. If you’re remodeling the way your organization works together, thoughts like “that’s the way it’s always been” have got to go. In a siloed workforce, this mentality becomes a justification to resist introducing the collaborative, cross-functional work that will break down organizational barriers.
If you want to break silos, you must reject this complacency. Instead, you have to reinvigorate the sense of excitement and urgency that defined the organization in the early days. The innovation and disruption you hear so much about from the startup industry happens just as much out of necessity as it does collaborative thinking. To account for factors like smaller organization size and lack of resources, teams work together collaboratively to ensure the organization’s survival.
Collaboration can’t be viewed as an option, and certainly not as an inconvenience. It must be seen as a necessity, and to do that, leaders need to clearly define unified company goals, and emphasize the role teamwork plays in accomplishing them. Reinforce these steps with inclusive, broad communication that doesn’t allow room for favoritism toward any particular team.
Get everyone together at least once
Anyone who’s a pro at busting silos will emphasize the importance of in-person interactions. As you make the organization more open to the idea of cross-functional work, you need to present your teams with opportunities to capitalize on this curiosity, both professionally and personally. Teams need to learn to interact with one another, and that means getting them together in the same room at least once.
The reasons for the professional conversations are immediately obvious. Teams need a better understanding of other departments’ workflow and thinking, and the immediacy of in-person communication facilitates that.
But personal interactions between team members are just as important. Not only are employees who have friends at work more likely to be high performers, the emphasis on friendly, prosocial communication actively combats the hostile, competitive attitudes bred by a silo mentality.
Find the opportunities that make sense for your company: meet and greets between offices to share best practices, cross-function hackathons, team-building exercises, even the company picnic. Getting people together, even just once, is what allows professional and personal respect to grow mutually.
Finally, invest in sustainable communication
The larger the organization, the more at risk it is for silos, and the more important it is to support frequent interactions across the organization. But getting everyone together every single time you want teams to interact simply isn’t scalable.
Thankfully, a booming enterprise technology marketplace exists to serve solutions on the personal and professional fronts. Seek out the technology that makes sense for your company in both respects, but don’t expect any one tool to meet all of your needs. A CRM tool is not the place where dispersed sales team members will want to share cat pictures and weekend plans. Similarly, your culture social communications platform might not be the best place to strategize your SEO approach. Keep your technology cross-functional, but understand that each tool will have a limited tenor of conversations it can support.
Although silos will take time to completely uproot, the alternative simply isn’t sustainable in the modern working world. Cross-functional, collaborative work is now more important than ever for staying competitive in the marketplace, and strong relationships between employees are a valuable inroad for making it happen.
Editor's note: This is a contributed piece by Rob Seay, the HR director for employee engagement and workplace culture platform Bonfyre.