How to break down silos (or pierce some holes in them!)

Posted on May 13, 2018

In last month’s opinion piece, we discussed some of the reasons why it’s so hard to get staff to work across internal boundaries, and how it can often create a stack of silos in the organisation.

It’s important to note that silos aren’t inherently wrong—they do serve a purpose when they allow people with similar skills and experience to work together. The problem lies in silos that become impenetrable, where people only work with others in the team and not across the organisation.

There are a few things you can do to break down these silos in an organisation (or at least poke some holes in them).

1. Rethink the role of the executive team

Executive teams often lament the existence of silos and lack of teamwork in their organisation, but it often starts at their table. In many cases, they are simply a group of people with individual operational responsibilities, who are focused on their patch and can even see others in the team as competitors for resources or approval hurdles to overcome. In this way, there’s a disconnect between the organisation’s aspirations and its actions.

There are ways to help your executive team work as one, rather than a bunch of individuals who are focused on the minutiae of direct reports at the expense of organisational-wide issues. If your organisation is committed to working as a team, this should be set out in performance management processes at all levels of the organisation. How your organisation rewards and assesses executive team members is a good indication of whether it wants them to focus on individual line management, or collectively look after the organisation as a whole.

2. Shift people around the silos

Another way to force collaboration across teams is to move people across silos, so they can gain an insight into different ways of working and bring their own perspective to other teams. A recent client tried this, switching the heads of its two largest operational areas, which demonstrated to staff the importance of adopting an organisational-wide approach.

One of the great benefits of graduate programs is they build a strong understanding of the organisation as a whole. Staff bring experience from the team they’ve just left and gain perspective about where they’re going. The irony is they are usually restricted to the most junior staff in the organisation, when it’s the more senior staff that would enjoy the most benefits.

Unfortunately, job rotation schemes are often resented by managers, because they feel they can’t afford to lose staff, which is a short-sighted and siloed view.

3. Do joint planning and implementation

It’s important to have all players at the table to plan the project, from the outset. Crucially, this should not only be the senior managers, but also middle management and anyone else that needs to be involved. After all, you wouldn’t tell a group of people to build a house by giving them an individual room and letting them go off and do their own thing. Each room needs to fit together so the end result is a house, and not a collection of rooms sitting beside each other.

Once this joint planning has occurred, you can break down larger tasks into smaller joint projects and build governance processes around these, such as sourcing executive sponsors, project management and project teams, with regular reporting and communication updates. This ensures that your ‘house’ is not simply joined by a roof at the top, but is cohesive all the way to the foundations of your organisation.

4. Dismantle the silos (carefully)

We suggested last month that an organisational restructure was a so-called quick fix, which often shifts silos around or gives them new names, but doesn’t encourage staff to work together. However, there are sophisticated ways to restructure an organisation. For example, while you don’t want to change the roles of people who do transactional and repetitive work, there is often an opportunity to create project teams made up of people across the organisation, who are moved around according to the needs of the organisation.

These project teams don’t need to be housed in a silo and can have a more fluid and flexible structure. Much like the graduate program, they gain a broader perspective of the organisation and bring their skills and experience to every new policy or project. This still requires a significant amount of careful joint planning, however is often a much more effective and affordable way to structure an organisation.

In next month’s opinion piece, my colleague Vahid Saberi will recount his experience as a chief executive in implementing an innovative project-based structure that strengthened cross-organisation collaboration.

If you need any expert advice in the meantime, please get in touch.