Everybody hates organizational silos. They are a problem. They get in the way. They need to be “busted.” And to some extent, I agree. The way our different departments seem to erect walls separating them from each other can definitely cause problems. What one department does ends up producing a result that causes trouble for another department, either immediately or (more likely) down the road. Silos create people who say “but that’s not my job.” Silos reinforce the “we’ve always done it that way” syndrome.
But we tend to forget that there are very valid and important reasons for having silos. We all can’t be experts in everything. It’s not efficient, and as the complexity of our operation increases, it’s literally impossible. Our brains and attention spans aren’t that big. Our organizations need deep expertise available to them. For that, we really need our silos.
So how do we make this work? Well, unfortunately the answer is NOT to order the silos to cooperate. Or, better yet, force everyone to attend endless staff meetings where each department gives a boring report about everything they’re doing so we can all make sure we’re “on the same page.” I’m not anti-meeting, by the way. Information sharing is great. But that doesn’t solve the silo problem.
To solve the silo problem, you need to increase your capacity for systems thinking. The different parts of the system need to be able to see how what they are doing is causing in impact in another part of the system, even if it’s delayed or somewhat indirect. Interestingly, a great way to do this is to distract people.
Remember, silos are useful, but by their nature they generate “ruts.” They do the same thing over and over, because only people in the silo have the expertise to do it. So that’s a good thing. But this causes them to naturally draw in their focus onto their rut. That inhibits systems thinking. So we need to find ways to distract them enough, and in a strategic way, so they start to see the bigger picture and adjust their own rut to be more in synch with the rest of the system. Patrick Lencioni offers some ideas on how to do that in his book, Silos Politics and Turf Wars (affiliate link). He talks about creating a unifying and time-limited “rallying cry” for all departments to focus on.
We also talk about this in Humanize in Chapter 6: How to Be Open. Open organizations embrace systems thinking when they design their structure and processes.