Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them – Thoughts from 20 Years in the Field

Silos are common place in just about every workplace I have ever engaged with. They are a natural result of organizations trying to structure themselves to achieve a level of expertise in a particular function or department. That primary or singular focus can create excellence and can be an important differentiator for an organization. As any market leaders will attest, having talented subject matter experts on your staff is a positive and some form of focused silo can be healthy for a business.

But like anything else, too much of a good thing can lead to trouble. You could have the industry’s smartest financial expert overseeing your numbers, the most creative marketer spearheading your PR and advertising campaigns, and the very best R&D department executive leading your next innovation, but if these folks aren’t working together, your chances for victory are slim. If they don’t have the big picture in mind because their departmental blinders are on, you’re in trouble.

The Silo Spectrum

There are many different ways to organize a business and the people in it. Some leaders take a traditional approach and compartmentalize by function. This can be effective and productive when everyone’s working together. But, if people become too insular in their thinking, you start to see disparate planning, meetings held in isolation and a culture where people put the success of their own function above that of the organization. What suffers is the speed at which important information is traveling within your organization and the lack of cross-functional know-how to best solve an issue.

At the other end of the Silo Spectrum are the free thinkers, the cross-pollinators, the modern-day hippie progressive version of the traditional business leader. These people believe in breaking down hierarchies, sometimes to the extreme. Look at Zappos, for example. Here’s a company creating an environment completely devoid of structure. Some might say that if you lack any structure – as in the Zappos holocracy – it can create inefficiency. It can potentially pose the challenge of not knowing where to go for the best resources or not knowing how to secure them. Zappos, along with numerous other organizations, are learning the ways of the holocracy as we speak and we are all watching closely to evaluate where it enhances effective speed of execution and where it does not.

Organizations live all along the Silo Spectrum, implementing various degrees of structure, separation and collaboration to best meet their own unique situations, personalities and goals.

So, what’s going to work best for your organization?

What’s best for you very much depends on your size and your objectives. There’s a lot of research on social networking (and I’m not talking about the friend you make on Facebook) and how our relationships and interactions with others either aid in fostering new ideas or completely bottleneck them.

Recent findings by Damon Centola, associate professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Anneberg School for Communication and School of Engineering, conclude that when people are tightly grouped together based on similar traits they can become isolated – which can prohibit the creation of new ideas. His study also tells us that having no boundaries can also be detrimental because when people have almost nothing in common, they ultimately have “very little influence over one another, making it impossible to spread complex ideas.”

Thankfully there is a middle ground. Centola reports that when a group’s individuals overlap in similarities, but are not too alike, they are better able to encourage the adoption of new and complex thinking. Here’s an image Centola shared in his study, which I believe perfectly illustrates the silo spectrum:

Centola used this image to depict how “networks that are moderately ‘grouped,’ as in the center example, are the most conducive to spreading complex ideas.”

How can we help our subject experts become socially connected to one another?

If you buy into Centola’s research, you’re of the mindset that silos in the workplace are good, but they must be open-minded silos – groups where members remain in constant contact with each other in order for information and ideas to travel at the best speed. One effective way to keep teams engaged with each other is to assign different members of your team to be the primary connectors with other specified teams. And be clear on your expectations of what those connections mean and are supposed to achieve. These folks are your “silo-busters.” They will keep you honest and make sure that you consciously build an organization that resembles the middle graphic above – one that best balances focus and expertise with speed.

Determining what works for your specific business is the key because the business world hasn’t devised an elegant way to solve the “to silo or not” dilemma for everyone. There is no “industry standard.” We need the benefits that silos bring – where people are encouraged to be the best in certain fields. We just need them to care about the whole pie more than they care about their slice. However, this challenges the very nature of human behavior. It pushes people out of their comfort zone. And so we need a set of checks and balances to make sure we don’t retreat too deeply into the comfort of our own group. We need to push ourselves to create a culture where there’s co-ownership, co-thinking and an established shared meaning of what winning looks like.

March 25, 2016


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