Sometimes, things hit you in the face.
Sometimes, patterns are easy.
Sometimes, messages repeat but in new and different ways.
Thus has been the case for me over the summer.
In working with three clients the notion of ‘silos’ has emerged as the reason for poor teamwork, missing deadlines, and general dissatisfaction. Fingers have been pointed, heated words (verbally and in emails) have been tossed about, and goals have stagnated.
A few case studies are in order. The first couple demonstrate problem silos while the third shows what progress can happen when silos never get built.
The first such silo I observed was rather unusual. Often, when we think of silos in an organization it is because there has been a structure imposed by ‘someone above’ which hinders productivity and goal attainment. In this situation, the silos were being erected by individuals! How so?
Their behavior included creating onerous processes for simple tasks, retaining the ability to veto any input or decision from someone outside their function, and ultimately to shut down their function without input from everyone. Functional leaders were free to change dates, skip meetings, and cancel deliverable actions with virtually no input from anyone. Silos were created specifically to block progress.
The second example occurred in working individually with an executive of a start-up. One of his frustrations was the lack of cooperation among teams. His company is small with only 40 employees. Yet given the nature of new product design, the software and hardware teams were consistently working in silos. As we discussed his organization–and in particular, his expectations for the design teams–it became clear that he had set up the organization to be competitive. So over the summer, he worked on his ability to communicate the need for people to work together while keeping the integrity of their design. He recognized collaboration and instances of cross-functional success.
Well, just about a week ago he called and was quite stirred up. He was in the process of establishing a new customer support function to launch their product to the mass market. However, he was frustrated over the reaction of one of his managers. This particular manager was upset because he was being asked to start the new support function–hire, train, and design processes–but the organization would eventually not report to him. He admitted he wanted to avoid the discussion and would instead have the new team report to the manager. I quickly told him “ok, but this is an opportunity to build a cross-functional team without the silos you experienced a few months ago.”
Nothing was said at first. Then he said “you’re right”. He realized this was the best chance to build collaboration and to avoid silos and especially the mentality that comes with them. He went right to the manager and discussed how this was the perfect opportunity to shape the future. So far, no silo in sight.
The third example, the good one, was a request from a client I worked with about three years ago. It was in a start-up mode that eventually transferred to an existing agency for implementation. The start-up and transition had gone well. This time the request was to help with the next level in their strategy.
You see, the email came jointly from the two organizations. While one of the executives is responsible for the program today, the request came from both leaders. What struck me immediately was that both leaders felt responsible for the next phase. Then, in my first few meetings with both of them it became clear and apparent that they felt a kinship in ensuring the future success. Neither pointed a finger, laid blame, tooted an individual horn, or felt the need to one-up the other. They were, have continued to be, and want to be in the future jointly responsible for the success.
So it occurs to me that silos are created–whether imposed by a senior manager or erected by functional departments–when the organization lacks:
- clear goals–what is the outcome, how it relates to the overall organization, why it is important, clear (and simple) processes to support the collective goals, communicate clearly and often
- accountability–who has prime responsibility and who needs to be consulted
- collaboration–a core belief and behaviors that working together will reap success for the organization, build trust, and sustain growth
While this may sound like “teamwork 101” I think it goes deeper.
Take, for example, the first example where silos were created by functional groups and individuals in order to shield themselves from working with others and towards the goals. Silos had become in this case, bunkers and shields.
So, how can leaders avoid silos? Keep in mind clear goals, accountability, and collaboration. Work towards clear vision with the team, track progress together, and consistently reinforce the message that everyone must work together. As in the case of the second example, even when progress is made, you have to continually look out for silo creation. And as the leader, recognize and praise progress.
Lastly, keep in mind the core lesson of the third example. It’s a joint strategy. Start with this and silos will likely be avoided, as this client has been able to do so largely for the past three years.
As a leader, the challenge is to avoid building silos and that when you see someone erecting one, to bust it down quickly.
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