How to seek and destroy organizational silos

sketch an evil silo
Fear the Evil Silo!

After I was put in charge of a newly created user experience department, a young professional gravely warned me about silos.

He had argued against the new department because it would just create another silo in the company.

The passion of the warning gave the impression that this silo threat was real, imminent, and inescapable in anything but a flat organization.

Beware all ye who manage departments! Dread the ghoul of business quagmire: silo! 😉

The warning was overzealous. The fear of silos is a bad reason to force an organization’s structure into any particular shape. No, instead shape the organization to promote sustainable excellence in performance for the whole business.

That said, for all you suffering from silophobia, let me tell you how to spot silos and what to do when you find them.

How do you spot a silo? Watch for the symptoms.

I found this description after a quick web search for organizational silos. (It’s a nice short read on silos, so go on and read the whole article.)

“The symptoms of the silo effect are easy to recognize: lack of cooperation, internal competition and breakdown in communication. The result is that one division gets pitted against another – head office against operations, one department against another.”
Marcel Côté, A matter of trust and respect, CA Magazine, March 2002.

As Marcel says, the symptoms are:

  • lack of cooperation
  • internal competition
  • breakdown in communication

Doesn’t that sound like squabbling children? Interdepartmental gossip may be another symptom.

Okay, let’s say you spot a breakdown in communication between departments. Do you have a silo? Don’t jump to conclusions. Maybe you just have poor communicators. Relax. You may not have a silo on your hands.

Now, if you do see all these symptoms, you have a problem, no matter what you call it.

The question is, what can you do about it?

How to solve a silo problem

Let’s say you manage an IT department and you have just spotted a silo in that other department, Communications.

Look out! You’re standing in your own silo peering out. Good job, you have just spotted two silos. Now what?

Now you do a gut check. Ask yourself if you have felt competition against Communications. Have you been looking out for own department at Communication’s expense? Think about your budget and your own maneuvering. When you think about your department’s plans, do you consistently consider how to keep the people over in Communications in the loop?

The key to tearing down silos is to go out of your way to help other departments.

(Fortunately for me, this is natural to user experience. We help other departments, like product development, marketing, and sales, do their work better.)

So, your next step is to go over to Communications and find out how you can help them the most. And then do it. Yeah, even spend a little of your own budget on the solution. And don’t begrudge it. Earn gratitude.

What will happen is that you will start strengthening relationships between the people in your department and the other department. With that will come respect, collaboration, and better communication.

Oh, and if you consistently help that other department, eventually they’ll get the idea and return the favor.

The idea is simple. Business silos exist when departments look out for their own interests instead of the whole business’s best interests. The solution is to get back in touch with the main objective of the company and help each other out in pursuit of that goal. Bingo.

In short, grow up and play nicely together.

P.S.—Or take this ITIL expert’s advice and admit that silos are a good thing and systematically work to strengthen them.

2 responses to “How to seek and destroy organizational silos”

  1. I agree. It is almost always wrong to act from a position of fear; but my concern is more that organizing your company based upon function instead of end to end value that is created is a type of corporate inefficiency.

    Admittedly, those risks can be mitigated. Plus user experience as a field seems to be well tuned towards avoiding the risks involved with siloed organizations.

    However, it still makes me uneasy. I don’t even like having a product development team. I think that’s a dangerous inefficiency as well. I’d much rather see a “Product Team X” which exists for a product or service that provides a full customer to business value stream.

    Then these teams would be organizationally connected on a very loose level based upon the people they share simply because they don’t require a full time accountant or hr person.

    But this seems most viable in software companies, where small groups are capable of creating exceptional value.

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