Silo Busting

Every organization I know has silo problems.  Even our small, committed, HSD-intelligent staff has problems with getting information across functional boundaries quickly and clearly. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been watching what we do to break through these troublesome silos, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve seen. I call them five rules for silo busting .

Break silos from the inside out .  I am helpless when I stand as an executive and observe silos in the organization I lead.  I can talk about them, encourage communication, provide training, create occasions for conversation and collaboration.  None of that will have any sustainable effect.  The only effective silo-busting action must come from within each of the siloed groups.  Until R&D recognizes the need to engage communications, nothing will change.  Until marketing sees interdependency with information systems, the divide is insurmountable.  Until all staff see the same vision and speak the same language—at least to some degree—silos will continue to focus internally and avoid interactions with other groups they don’t value, understand or control.   When silo breaking begins from within, specialists in one function reach out to others. They cross the boundaries naturally to access whatever they need to do their jobs.  The simple act of reaching out dissolves the silo when nothing else can.  

Pathways of changeUse inquiry to build pathways for change .  When communication between silos consists of orders and commands, the walls get stronger over time. Anyone who has worked in an environment of shared services and field delivery knows how this works.  HQ gives a command, and field staff resist.  Field staff make a demand, and HQ resists.  One-way communications look like powerful silo busters, but they have the opposite effect.   They divide more than they connect. Questions, on the other hand, work wonders.   A smooth flow of information and resources always begins with a question. Open inquiry primes the communication pump.  It gets the flow started.  It initiates exchange.  It begins to build trust. It opens options for action.  The simple act of asking a question dissolves the silo when nothing else can. 

Talk about the work, not the silo.   The more you focus on a structure, the stronger that structure becomes in the hearts and minds and processes of an organization.  It may be counter intuitive, but people who talk about silos, focus on differences across the organization and wave the silo-busting flag reinforce the existence of the boundaries they want to bridge.  Work, real work, has the power to cross over from one silo to another.  When individuals and groups recognize that real work requires real collaboration, they rise to the challenge and reach across the organization to give or get what they need.  Focusing on the work can dissolve a silo when nothing else can. 

Find the difference that makes a difference, and ignore the rest.   Silos were created for a reason.  In the mid-twentieth century, our best work required isolation and specialization.  Deep expertise in specific areas was the key to technical development and reliable delivery.  Our differences made us successful.  In response, our organizations generated silos to reinforce differences and ensure high quality, accountability and speed of delivery.  Today, we live in a different world.  Good work, of almost all kinds, requires integrated knowledge and cooperative effort.  We need flexible and adaptable people and processes to meet the needs of complex environments and customer requirements.  On the other hand, even if the role of the generalist might make us quite nimble, it isn’t always an efficient or effective solution.  Differentiation is critical, but too much separation is deadly.  The successful organization design will establish and support differences that make a difference, and ignore or work around differences that are not critical to the work.  We use a simple tool—Same and Different—to analyze what differences separate one silo from another and decide which similarities will bridge and which differences will empower adaptive action for the part and the whole. Organizing around a difference that makes a difference can dissolve a silo when nothing else can. 

Mind your own gives and gets. Effective exchange is the glue that merges dysfunctional silos into functional communities of work.  The exchange may involve information or money or raw materials or finished products or customers or innovations or any other flow that is the lifeblood of a productive workplace.  Effective exchanges emerge when “gives” and “gets” are balanced across silo boundaries.  A “give” occurs when an individual unit produces and makes available whatever is required to fulfill its responsibility.  A “get” occurs when the unit receives from others whatever is required to do its own work.  An effective network is established, and silos are busted, when every single unit is clear about what it gives to and gets from its cross-silo partners.  Balanced gives and gets can dissolve a silo when nothing else can. 

These five rules, as simple as they may seem, set conditions for work across silos. They help people do the work they need to do while participating in the work of the greater whole.  We find them to be simple, but not always easy.  Habits, egos, out-dated processes, and the rush of everyday life keep us stuck in other rules—the ones that reinforce rather than busting silos.  We turn to these simple rules when we find ourselves stuck in unproductive patterns of working within rather than across silos. These simple rules help us dissolve our silos when nothing else can. 

To apply these ideas, download the Same and Different tool.

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