Breaking Down Silos; It's Not Rocket Science

Breaking Down Silos Rocket Science

Colleges and universities, corporations, local government — pick any organization with two or more departments — have got a silo problem.

What would have to change to tear down these artificially constructed walls that create misunderstandings, gaps in communication, all leading to rampant inefficiencies?

In this article we'll look at these issues and I'll suggest how managers and staff can address this problem today.

On farms, silos serve a useful function. They appropriately separate wheat from grain, a necessary step in the farm distribution process.

In organizations, silos are a metaphor for the unintended consequence of storing something in one place.

As defined by Wikipedia:

The expression is typically applied to management systems where the focus is inward and information communication is vertical. Critics of silos contend that managers serve as information gatekeepers, making timely coordination and communication among departments difficult to achieve, and seamless interoperability with external parties impractical.

Or as described by Patrick Lencioni in his book, Silos, Politics and Turf Wars:

"Silos devastate organizations, kill productivity, push good people out the door, and jeopardize the achievement of corporate goals."

How widespread is this problem? A few weeks back, I attended a lecture given by Senator Arlen Specter and Lee Hamilton at the Chautauqua Institution. During the question/answer period, Senator Specter spoke on the breakdowns anticipating the 9/11 attacks.

He cited two examples; one where an FBI agent had early information on the lead terrorist that never got to the right department and second — more profoundly — an investigation about warnings on September 10 about a terrorist attack that showed up on September 11.

He used these two examples to demonstrate how challenging it is for government organizations to get things done and as he called them, "stove-pipe" departments that don't work well together.

A Subtle Resignation

Although the silos we experience for the most part are not life threatening, there is a growing awareness of how widespread this problem is.

We even know why this is happening: too much information with not enough time to process, the increasing reliance on technology tools that don't get administered well, cross-departmental bureaucracy, politics ... just to name a few.

Look beyond these well-assessed explanations and something else is present: an unspoken resignation that very little makes a difference toward real productivity, and going through the motions is better than doing nothing.

For example, resignation shows up in how we experience meetings, the hourly ritual of going from one gathering to another, bringing together well-intentioned people in the hopes that face-to-face contact will somehow pierce our collective ambivalence.

By the end of the day, we haven't taken a breath from our back-to-back meetings, only to go home and log onto intranets and email to get a jumpstart on the next day. We're working harder than ever, but feel further away from a sense of true accomplishment.

The unintended consequence of working hard and not smart only reinforces our resignation. So where can we be looking for help?

Change Starts At Home

It's not a popular notion — the idea that we have to change ourselves before we can change others. But we've got to stop waiting for the problem to be fixed by some magical Bewitched twitching of the nose or Mary Poppins cleaning the room with a snap.

There is no cure for organizational silos, no solution that will make them go away. Silos are dilemmas that need to be managed and negotiated between people. Yes, structural changes will help, but let's focus on what we can control.

Understanding vs. Execution

Here's a scenario where interpersonal silos cause work to stall.

Imagine management expressing the need to decrease travel expenses and assembling a task force to look at the issue. Their goal is to have a new travel policy in place that is good for the organization as well as encourages travel restraint.

The process might look something like this:

  1. Form task force
  2. Assess implications of the change (upside and downside)
  3. Draft a new policy
  4. Implement the change

So there's your free consultant's approach to tackling the problem. But let's be honest. You don't need a consultant to come up with this plan. Coming up with the plan is the easy part.

The steps give the appearance of a coherent plan and satisfies management's desire to see the issue being addressed. So why do these efforts get stalled so easily or only get implemented upon your retirement?

Simple. We've become great planners but continue to be lousy executors. All it takes is one breakdown with one person for the entire project to stall.

"Nothing To Report"

The assumption is that when projects get delayed, (like the one above), it must be the result of some complex issue that needs to be resolved. Nope. Bob was supposed to interview two managers about their travel needs, one was on vacation and Bob figured he'd wait two weeks until that person returned. Noting it on his calendar, he moves onto other matters.

Other task force members, hitting their own walls lead the coordinator to postpone the monthly meeting because there's "nothing to report".


This is precisely when a meeting should occur to kick some collective beehind into action. Instead, the collective reasonableness of the group causes momentum for the project to stall, leaving everyone with another example "why things don't get done around here."

Wake up call

If you ask managers why things don't get done, they'll say their people are not proactive enough. If you ask staff what the problem is, they say management isn't clear about what they want.

Lesson #1: Stop waiting for someone to tell you what to do.

There is too much concern about appearances versus doing what it takes to get a job done. This doesn't excuse poor management, but people need to raise their personal standards around getting problems unstuck, versus waiting for a manager to point it out.

Management: "Why didn't Bob just pick another department to interview?"
Bob: "I was told to interview these two departments, not make sure that two departments were interviewed."

Lesson #2: Assume confusion up and down your organization, disguised as passive, acceptance

Regardless how well you think you communicate, people still don't get it. Human nature is to hide confusion, no matter how well something is communicated. If you're making a request, ask people to articulate what they're going to do, not if they understand the request.

Lesson #3: Meet others' needs first

People look out for themselves, which has the opposite effect on productivity. Your best people, your "outstanding employees", know something that others don't. They look first for how they can help others and only then ask others for help in return. This has tremendous power in getting things done. It may seem risky to put your needs second, and even counterintuitive, but it works.

The Bottom Line

We've got to put more emphasis on holding each other accountable to getting things done. It's time to move beyond planning, beyond our project management software that we meticulously keep up to date. It's time to develop mastery around something called interpersonal execution. That is where you can impact silos in your organization today.

Interpersonal Silos

"Most teams aren't teams at all but merely collections of individual relationships with the boss. Each individual vying with the others for power, prestige, and position."

— Douglas McGregor,
Business theorist and management professor 1906–1964