Carol Kinsey Goman

Article Summary:

How to identify the causes of business silos, and how to break them down.

Tearing Down Business “Silos”

Earlier this month my husband, Ray, had both knees replaced with titanium and plastic joints. The operations were highly successful, and after just fourteen days, he was totally mobile with only the aid of a walking stick.

Because of the bilateral surgery, Ray spent a full week in the hospital (instead of the usual three days) and I was with him every day. That gave me plenty of time to observe the hospital staff. And what I saw was almost as impressive as Ray’s speedy recovery. I was constantly surprised and delighted by the highly collaborative spirit of the team of physicians, nurses, therapists, and aids who worked on his case.

I was especially grateful because I know how rare it is to get this level of service. I’ve consulted with several healthcare organizations where, instead of patient-centric synergy, a silo mentality had taken over.

And healthcare isn’t the only industry dealing with silos . . .

A study by Industry Week found that business functions operating as silos are the biggest hindrance to corporate growth. A more recent American Management Association survey shows that 83 percent of executives said that silos existed in their companies and that 97 percent think they have a negative effect.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article on the latest business buzzwords, the word "unsiloing" was listed. Unsiloing mangles the noun silo to make a simple but important point: Managers must find ways to foster cooperation across departmental, hierarchical, and functional boundaries.

Which is no easy task.

Turf battles happen everywhere – in hospitals, government agencies, associations, school systems and private industry. Silos can be created around an individual, a group, a division, a function, or even a product line. Wherever it’s found, silo mentality becomes synonymous with power struggles, lack of cooperation, and loss of productivity. And always, the customer/client/patient is the ultimate loser.

I’ve seen firsthand what silos can do to an enterprise: The organization disintegrates into a group of isolated camps, with little incentive to collaborate, share information, or team up to pursue critical outcomes. Various groups develop impervious boundaries, neutralizing the effectiveness of people who have to interact across them. Local leaders focus on serving their individual agendas – often at the expense of the goals of the rest of the organization. The resulting internal battles over authority, finances and resources destroy productivity, and jeopardize the achievement of corporate objectives. Talented (and frustrated) employees walk out the door – or worse yet, stay and simply stop caring.

What can be done to tear down silos, reduce conflicts, and increase collaboration? Here are a few ideas:

Reward collaboration.
Too many companies talk about collaboration yet reward individual achievement. Therefore, the first obvious solution is to change the reward system. Define and make collaborative performance objectives part of the employee review process. Recognize and promote people who work across organizational boundaries – and tell their stories to the whole organization.

Focus on innovation.
Innovation is triggered by a cross-pollination of ideas, such as when the "right people" happen to meet at the right time and discover, in the course of conversation, that each has information needed by the other. It is in the combination and collision of ideas that creative breakthroughs most often occur. When an organization focuses on innovation, it does so by bringing together people with diverse perspectives and expertise – breaking down barriers and silos in the process.

Communicate transparently.
In any organization, the way information is handled determines whether it becomes an obstacle to or an enabler of collaboration. Company-wide communication is a vitally important tool in breaking up silos or avoiding their creation. You need to make sure that every employee has access to the same candid information about how the company runs its business – its financial challenges, competitive pressures, and strategic initiatives.

Encourage networks.
Employees with multiple networks throughout the organization facilitate collaboration. You can accelerate the flow of knowledge and information across boundaries by encouraging workplace relationships and communities. Use a tool like Social Network Analysis (SNA) to create a visual model of current networks so you can reinforce the connections and help fill the gaps.

Create alignment.
You want your people to understand their roles and what they do to help the organization succeed. You also want them to understand the roles of others. To help combat silo mentality, departments and teams need to know how they support or influence other areas of the organization. They need to understand the importance of working in concert with other areas to achieve crucial strategic objectives.

Mix it up.
Encourage teams from different areas of an organization to work together. Find opportunities for managers and other employees in the organization to collaborate in cross-functional teams. Rotate personnel in various jobs around the organization. Invite managers from other areas of the organization to visit your team meetings, even making them members of the group, as you work on mutually beneficial efforts.

Focus on the customer.
Nothing is more important in an organization – whether it’s a for-profit company or a non-profit group – that staying close to the end user of the service or product you offer. Unfortunately, within silos, the focus is typically on internal issues rather than on response to customers. You can refocus the organization by sharing marketplace information and customer feedback. Better yet, bring in a panel of end users to report on their experience so that everyone understands how the enterprise as a whole is meeting, exceeding, or missing customer expectations.

Get personal.
Collaborative relationships thrive in an environment of personal trust. Well-placed trust grows out of experience and interaction – usually extended over time by talking and asking questions, by listening and seeing how well claims to know and actions hold up. But it is also built by getting to know people as individuals. When you hold offsite retreats, organization-wide celebrations, or workplace events with "social" time built in, you provide opportunities for employees to develop camaraderie and personal relationships of trust.

The foundation of a successful organization is an entire team focused on common goals. Silos erode this foundation. Being aware of the fundamental human behaviors that lead to silos and taking steps to overcome them offers fantastic benefits – including more relevant products and services, higher productivity, better use of resources, and more effective and engaged personnel.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., coaches executives, facilitates management retreats, helps change teams develop strategies, and delivers keynote speeches and seminars to association and business audiences around the world. She is the author of nine business books, including: “The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work,”   “This Isn’t the Company I Joined: How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down,”   and “Managing in the Global Organization.”   Carol can be reached by phone: 510-526-1727, or through her website:

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