Silosmashing

For nearly 3 years I worked for an organisation called SiloSmashers.  SiloSmashers’ mission is to ‘set out to change how government agencies and corporations manage programs — and smash silo operations’.  Their view is that ‘Working in silos creates isolation and obstacles to effective communication and collaboration across agencies and corporations — reducing efficiency and hampering progress.’

When I was doing a clear out last month – 9 days of clearing 27 items, apparently a feng shui activity that will change one’s life – I found my SiloSmashers’ business card and some of the materials I developed and used there.

Coincidentally, last week, someone asked me if there would be any mileage in running a training programme on silo smashing. Whether silo smashing has returned to change my life, I don’t know but I decided to ask myself if a silo smashing programme would attract participants.

Silo smashing is recommended to bust the downsides of the ‘silo mentality’ – defined as the ‘mind-set present in some companies when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company.’  That implies a wilfulness about the issue of cross silo collaboration, which I don’t think is necessarily the case.

Silos get built through things like the traditional bureaucratic vertical hierarchies (look at any traditional organisation chart and you’ll see a  visual of silos), the performance management systems that encourage competition over collaboration, the reward systems that reward individuals over teams, cultures that emphasise command and control rather than self-direction and autonomy,  IT systems that ‘don’t talk to each other’ and physical layouts (like a single business unit on one floor).  You can probably name other organisational elements that encourage silo working.  It’s not necessarily a ‘mindset’ of wilful behaviour of the people in the silos (although in some cases it might be).

Although there’s much written on breaking down silos e.g. To Build Your Business Smash Your Silos, or 5 Ways to Destroy the Pesky Silos in Your Organization, or Breaking Down Silos to Achieve Strategic Agility or Gillian Tett’s book The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers (see her talking on the topic here)  silos are not necessarily a bad thing.

As the authors of Dealing with Market Disruption: Seven Strategies for Breaking Down Silos remark, ‘Conventional wisdom holds that silos are a flawed business construct: a legacy of command and control leadership symbolizing outmoded and inefficient management. In truth, silos help establish boundaries and maintain order — and allow professional teams to operate in a focused, specialized way.

If we talk the language of agile squads, tribes, guilds, chapters, we are not far from the concept of silos.  How different is a ‘tribal mentality’ from a ‘silo mentality’?

Commenting in a Tweet, @mrcruce, July 31, 2018, says ‘Instead of ‘eliminating’ divisions, or ‘blowing up’ silos…. let’s use metaphors about bridging, connecting, unifying, transcending, collaborating across borders…. connecting all of the groups within an organization in a coherent way so that they all work seamlessly together.’

This is a sensible approach that could blend the virtues of silos (and tribes) with the virtues of connectivity and collaboration and it is possibly a more achievable, and less disruptive method, than opting to smash the silos.  In ‘Don’t Break Your Silos – Push Out the Silo Mentality’ the writer’s view is that silos need ‘ventilating’.  He points out that, ‘Grain silos keep different types of agriculture separate, but they do not keep them in a vacuum, instead there are openings, which allow air to get in.  Ventilating the silos is not a simple task and the main difference between breaking and ventilating them is that the focus does not disperse. In order to ventilate the silos in your company, you need to boost the sharing culture within and build bridges between the different silos, by which the information can cross freely from one to another.’

Connecting silos where and when appropriate, using carefully re-designed organizational systems and processes to manage the connections effectively in ways that develop a culture of connection and collaboration is the topic of several blogs (and books – See Patrick Lencioni, Silos, Politics and Turf Wars).  One writer summarises the many who advise on how to do this:

  • Develop a unified vision and providing people with a clear purpose and ultimate common goals.
  • Boost the sharing culture and encourage environments of necessary transparency
  • Build bridges between the different silos, through which the information can flow freely. ‘Whether it’s going to be by creating cross functional teams, holding regular meetings between departments or finding a way of your own. This is all to improve collaboration, communication, and trust between teams.’

This is all easier said than done but a good starter is the five questions from a Fast Company article:

  1. What priorities do you or your department have that are not aligned with another’s?
  2. Put yourself in the place of the other silo–what would make that silo realize that your need was a priority?
  3. What information do you or your department have that could be useful to others?
  4. What information or assistance do you need from another silo that you are not getting?
  5. In what areas would increased collaboration and giving up some autonomy be more beneficial for the organisation than maintaining your individuality?

Margaret Heffernan tells a lovely story that illustrates a forum in which the five questions above get addressed:

‘When it came time to draw up the company’s annual budget, each department head drew up a budget for that department — but then had to explain it so cogently to one colleague that the colleague could defend it at the leadership team meeting. The chief technology officer would argue the case for marketing, the head of sales spoke on behalf of operations, customer care explained technology’s needs. The impact of this simple exercise was profound. Everyone had to see the whole company through eyes not their own.’  

And a second one about an executive who ‘told me about the silos of his business: geographical regions and technical functions found it hard to connect and trust one another. He’d asked that each make short films about one another. He wasn’t expecting anyone to invest much effort in the project but went to the trouble to gather the entire company in a cinema to watch what they’d made. The outcome startled him: movies of immense passion, inventiveness and humor that delighted, motivated, and inspired the whole company.’

These stories illustrate that taking inventive steps to build social connections go a long way towards bridging silos.  But in themselves they are not sufficient. There have to be clearly communicated reasons for connecting and formal reinforcement of it with systems, processes and common platforms that track and enable connection.   (See how the Estonian government manages a platform that is common and appropriately siloed).   Additionally there has to be what Rob Cross describes as boundary spanning leadership which requires skills in systems, system dynamics and network thinking and connecting.

Given all the above info, it seems to me that we could easily develop a programme on Silos – not smashing but connecting.  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Sam Bates Silo Artist

One thought on “Silosmashing”

  1. So many things to like about this article.

    I have an incredibly successful case study which demonstrates this. It required a deep understanding of attitudes, beliefs, what people were focused on, and what was driving them. Seeking to establish what beliefs existed about what everyone else was busy doing, whilst they were focused on THEIR thing. Aligned to question 2 in the Fast Company article. Lots of assumptions as you can imagine, with some aspects of work felling completely because of the assumptions.

    I then sought to carefully redesign this so there were routine “moments” where people came together to share; started small, built habits, the more value they observed, the bigger it scaled. BIG results.

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