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Silos in the workplace have typically been viewed as detriments to organizational success. When the world was first thrown into turmoil due to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, many folks became even more siloed, as they were physically isolated from co-workers. A Harvard Business School study, Silos That Work: How the Pandemic Changed the Way We Collaborate, found that communication within siloed groups “intensified” during this time. This makes sense – many people felt distraught, worried, and confused, so they increased their email interactions with the people they felt the most comfortable with. When you look at things this way, maybe silos aren’t so bad after all?

The truth is that while silos can give employees feelings of security and support, and make it easier for them to bond with like-minded people, they can still be roadblocks to organizational productivity and efficiency.

The Problem With Siloes

Think about it: If your business is implementing a new strategy or initiative, you’ll need the help of people from across departments, functions, and lines of business for it to succeed.

With a product launch, product management comes up with the specs for the product. Then, engineering needs to buy off on those specs, validate that it’s possible to build, and give estimates for costs and timing to build. Product marketing determines how it will be priced and creates key positioning statements to hand off to sales and marketing. Marketing works with an advertising agency to conceptualize advertisements and campaigns, and public relations develops the media strategy.

Right there, you’ve needed at least five departments – and we haven’t even talked about manufacturing, production, and training. And this is just the operations and planning stages.

What if all of those teams and people can’t work together? What if they have no understanding of why they need each other, or why the business needs them to work together? Or worse, they work together, but there are numerous missed steps and miscommunication. Making your strategy a reality would be a lot harder! This is exactly what can happen when silos come into play.

Silos are a natural part of life; as humans, we can be territorial and protective. We also want accountability; we want to know who is supposed to be doing what and when, so we can make sure it happens. In business, however, when people claim responsibility only for the area they’re directly working in, we cannot achieve our potential greatness.

Often, senior leaders have a hard time building “collective intelligence” by owning the whole before their individual pieces. When someone works too much on their individual agenda, they don’t spend enough time owning the whole. This is how the silos develop.

Three Tips to Avoid Being Derailed by Silos

Empowering your people to connect with their teammates and like-minded peers is a smart way to spark ideation, build bonds, and help people find enjoyment from their daily work. But leaders must be sure that silos don’t become a hindrance to productivity and efficiency in the organization. Above all, everyone must be aligned and working together for the good of the whole. Here are three ways to encourage this to happen.

  1. Create shared priorities across units and functions.

Once you and your leadership team have established the goals of the strategy or initiative, the first step is to figure out what resources and capabilities you need. Where do those resources live in your organization? You’ll likely need help from more than one function. For example, 60% of the potential success may reside within your function, but 40% will be needed from outside. That’s where shared goals, processes, and priorities come in.

In any given strategy execution scenario, one person, team, or department may be setting the priorities for many people or teams. Those priorities may or may not align with what’s important to any single department at that place in time, but it’s critical for every player to accept and rally behind it in the name of the big picture.

To break down silos, everyone has to be involved and take ownership, even if it means making sacrifices in their own area for the greater good of the strategy. It can’t be “yours” vs. “mine,” it must be “ours” – which is a difficult concept in many cases.

If this thought still doesn’t motivate shared cross-functional priorities, then consider this:

“Overwhelmed” is the single most common word that most people respond with when asked how they feel.

This feeling is the direct result of not prioritizing, integrating, and simplifying the goals, priorities, and initiatives of an organization.

If you are not motivated to bring the silos down for your organization’s sake, then do it for your people. The challenge is shifting the mindset from a single department or area of responsibility to a broader way of thinking that focuses on the big picture.

The former will hold people back from achieving what is truly possible. If people are only accountable for their primary area, then they are not facilitating any exceptional performance. Shared priorities bring everyone together to own the whole and execute in a unified way that’s fulfilling for all and achieves bigger, better business outcomes.

  1. Help people see their work as part of a broader process or system.

Consider a hospital, for example. There are so many moving parts – admitting, the ER, radiology, the nurses’ station, and so many more. Everyone may be doing their job in their area, but the patient experience may still be less than satisfactory due to lack of a holistic view. To eradicate this siloed way of working and thinking, people must:

  • Understand the whole process and their role in that big picture
  • See where the handoffs happen in that process, as this is where things can go wrong
  • Know their critical role in those handoffs and how they impact the overall experience
  • Fully feel the difference in a patient’s experience that is managed as a broader process, and what it feels like when it is not

The assumption is that anyone working for you is able to do their job, or else they would not be there. What it comes down to is how successful people can be if they are oblivious to where and how they fit into the grander scheme. The silos break down when you’re able to paint a picture of the entire process you’re trying to create – shedding light for people on the parts they don’t necessarily own but need to be aware of. This makes the handoffs coordinated and integrated, delivering a seamless experience to your customers.

  1. Understand the outcomes and the emotive forces in play.

According to noted author Chip Heath, people change because first they see change, then they feel it, then they actually do it. Getting the silos to come down is to understand the consequences of how those silos impact others.

Here’s a great example. A guest at a large hotel chain was on a kidney transplant wait list. When the call came in that an organ was available, the wife could not locate the husband to relay the news, and she became panicked. Working together, however, the hotel’s front desk manager and the pool maintenance director tracked him down and got him where he needed to be. It’s hard to think of what may have happened if those two people, and functions, were not open to and interested in working together for the greater good of the guest.

While that may be an extreme case, there are scenarios like this happening in your business – and all businesses – every day.

You must ask yourself: What is the impact of building greater coordination, collaboration, and awareness? What is the impact of not doing it at all? Why is breaking down the walls important to our culture and to those we serve? These walls will come tumbling down once you have a better idea of the human side, the emotion in play, and the outcomes your organization is capable of achieving when people step outside their comfort zone and join forces.

The Good of the Whole Must Always Come First

The benefits of breaking through silos are astounding. Once you start the process, you will find that whatever you are hoping to accomplish will happen faster. You will have tremendous clarity on what capabilities you need to achieve certain things, and you will assign resources to support exactly those activities. Innovation will skyrocket as you put uncommon capabilities together in new ways to sell or create. You’ll be agile. You’ll be willing to change. Best of all, your people will be happier knowing they’re making a bigger and more meaningful impact – which translates directly into customer delight.

Good strategies are complex and require different input and strengths to be executed effectively. Silos are debilitating to good strategies. We all need the cross-functional collaboration and coordination to be the best version of ourselves and to deliver the best we can for our company and our customers.

May 20, 2022

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