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InfoQ Homepage Articles Don't Break Your Silos - Push Out the Silo Mentality

Don't Break Your Silos - Push Out the Silo Mentality

Key takeaways

  • Silos may decrease social capital, create disorder and complicate the decision making process in a company.
  • Silos themselves do no create these problems, the mentality that comes with them does.
  • Silos are more apt to form in big companies, but small ones are not insured against them either.
  • Forming of silos in the organization is a natural process.
  • Silos do not need to be destroyed if they are ventilated often.


Creating and maintaining a stable and resilient organization is one of the central goals of every CEO out there, irrelevant of the industry in which her company operates or its size. One of the problems that stands in the way of that goal is segregation among the employees of the company, caused by the formation of silos and the mentality that comes with them.

Silos may cause many problems for a company, such as decreasing the social capital within, creating disorder in the work process thus slowing it down, decreasing the adaptability of the company and complicating the decision making process.

Just like silos separate grains in their literal meaning, organizational silos separate the different departments, putting together people who share common tasks and goals.

Silos are not entirely bad if they are monitored closely and ventilated often, because they remove all the unnecessary noise out of the general work process. Imagine what would happen if you put together two departments that have completely different functions like customer support and software development. One of them constantly works with clients over the phone and the other needs a quiet environment in order to focus and write the code on which team members are working. The developers will not be too happy if they have to deal with the din created by the process required for customer support.

Silos are more apt to form in big companies, but small ones are not insured against them either. A typical example of silos in a small company is when you have 20 people who have the same role, but are divided into three teams working on different projects. They share the same room, but everything else they do is different. Each group concentrates on its own internal communication and focuses on creating better chemistry between its members. 

Most of the problems that come with the silos are caused by the silo mentality that takes over the employees. According to the business dictionary, “the silo mentality is a mindset present when certain departments or teams do not wish to share information with others in the same company...”. This leads to a constrained network of communication between the different parts of the company and decreases the social capital that it has built up. Silo mentality forms slowly over time. Members of the same silo start to consider their department an organization of its own within the organization and forget that they have at least one huge goal in common with the other departments - the success of the company of which they are all part.

How Silos Form

Silos form slowly and may be considered a natural process because different departments usually do not share the same working space. Depending on the size of the company, members may be divided by rooms, floors, buildings, and for larger companies - cities or even countries.

Silos begin to define when the employees within an organization develop greater loyalty to their team rather than to their employer. As the internal team bonds solidify, the trust between members of different silos decreases and makes the collaboration between them less likely.

An example of silo mentality almost ruining an organization is what happened in 2014 to the company that produced one of the most emblematic mobile app games in history. At first, the decision making process was executed at the lowest possible level of the hierarchy. The company had a horizontal structure and team play was encouraged. Four years later, after the success of their product, the culture of the organization changed. The design department was overseeing the work of all the other parts of the company, forming a silo and controlling all of the processes within as it pleased. The result was poor performance and the eventual detrimental splitting of the teams.

One typical prerequisite for the forming of а silo mentality is conflicted leadership or a gap between management and employees.

It is widely believed that, one of the easiest ways to unite people is to give them a common adversary, which motivates them to perform better collectively. If each of the team leaders starts to create the image of adversity in the face of the people from other teams, an inner competition may arise between the teams themselves. If it is friendly and just for the sport, it may boost the performance of the whole company as all of the teams will aim to perform at the peak of their skills, however with envy and price on the line, people from the teams may try to do everything in their power to stop their rivals from winning, including minimizing contact, withholding information, trying to create conflict between the management and other teams, and etc. Constant disagreement between the leaders of different teams or departments may drive a line between their subordinates and divide them. They start to chase only the goals of their silo and withhold important information that concerns their other colleagues.

Silos often separate higher-level employees from front-line workers, such as salespeople or production workers.

They may easily turn into a problem for the self-organization, because they affect the dynamics in the company. If we are led by Bruce Tuckman’s theory of group development, every team has four stages from its establishment to the moment where it starts to collaborate perfectly(forming, storming, norming and performing). From the first to the last phase there is a long road that can’t be walked without guidance from the managers. If there is a silo that separates employees from managers the self-organizational abilities of the company won’t be able to develop. This is due to the fact that in every stage the management plays a different role.

A good example that illustrates this is a startup company which starts to grow. At first there is a core team that pretty much does everything, but with larger revenue and higher demand the company decides to form a new marketing department. They find suitable candidates and hire them. One of the “old dogs” that was dealing with marketing issues becomes their manager and has the responsibility to include them in the company. At first they have no idea what is the company’s culture and rely on individual skills, trying to contribute as best as they can, looking for a way to fit in and define their roles. This is the forming phase and the decision making process is centralized as the manager takes pretty much all of the decisions in the team and has most of the responsibility. During the first stage everybody is friendly and tries to collaborate with everybody, but when they reach the second (storming) the situation changes drastically. Team members know each other better and already see differences between themselves. During this stage conflicts are frequent occurrence and if a gap opens between the leader and the rest of the team, the chance to never reach the next phase grows, because the leader has to coach his subordinates in order to resolve the conflicts and keep them on track. If this does not happen silo mentality has suitable habitat to spread and cause a variety of problems for employees and managers alike and each of the silos will blame the others.

Dealing with the Silos

As silos form from the top downwards in the organizational hierarchy, this is also how you must also approach the process of dealing with them.

Breaking silos is not an easy task and it takes time and effort. In order to destroy and prevent them, managers must create a common vision for the company that is recognized by all of the leadership staff and employees. It is crucial that the leaders of the silos recognize this goal in order to have an effect on the other members of the silo. Having a common goal at hand can boost co-operation and coordination within the entire company. Another key action that must be taken is the monitoring and measuring of the progress that has been made in the direction of boosting that same cooperation and coordination. The members of the team need to have a sense of the benefit that comes from the efforts of pursuing their common goal.

In the worst cases, silos form and proliferate because team leaders are in some kind of conflict between each other, which reflects on the people below them. The first thing that needs to be done in order to tighten the gap between the silos is to agree on a unified vision for the company that everyone has the motivation to recognize and follow. The easiest way to do so is by organizing regular meetings between the different departments or using various information radiators or tools to improve the information flow.

So if the different departments are given a common purpose, the next step is to boost the contact between them in order to achieve it. Create cross-department teams and give them tasks that can be completed only by working together. Providing them with a place where they can gather and work on the assignments will make the collaboration even easier. This will not break your silos, but will provide the much needed ventilation in order to push out the silo mentality. For example, put together promising people from different parts of the company that usually have limited contact between themselves and give them a task to create a vision for the development of the whole company for the near future. Each of them will contribute with knowledge and experience from а different area of expertise and if the final result of their teamwork is great, why not actually execute it? 

Cross-department teams can be a short or a long-time solution for the silo mentality problem. Many companies have adopted a permanent cross-team functionality, thus pushing out the silo mentality out of their quarters. The idea was introduced by Northwestern Mutual Life insurance company in the 1950-s in order to study the impact of computers on the business world. Their CEO at that time brought together people from the financial, investment, actuarial and other departments and entrusted them with a task, the result of which was the creation of one of the first information system departments in the world. Sixty years later the company continues to assign cross-functional teams to various projects.

The most practical way to introduce cross-teams in product development is to gather people from different departments, when you are planning to start a new product or add new features to an existing one and assign a team consisting of people from all of the departments involved in the process. This way all of the departments will learn of the new product at the same time and that would contribute for the early identification of potential risks. For example, if part of the product simply could not be manufactured cheaply enough, the team member from that area could immediately sit down with the engineering representative and come up with an alternative production method. This will not only boost the contact between the departments, but it will shorten the cycle time for production. 

One of the crucial things that needs to be done when you create such a team is to make sure that it will not become a new silo. Many companies have adopted the cross-team functionality, but not all of them managed to get rid of the silo mentality. Instead it manifested in the new teams, because they were given a special status and some kind of autonomy. Instead of serving as a ventilator to push out the silo mentality they became a silo of their own, bridging all of the information from their original departments to one point, where it stayed and gave them leverage over their colleagues.

There is one simple solution to this problem - put temporary status on every seat on these teams, in order to rotate more people and include them in the process. For instance if you integrate the cross-functional team structure on a project basis, set a rule that one person may not take part of the team for two consecutive projects, or even before all of her colleagues have taken part of such a team. This way everybody will know they will have to take part of it and they will seek contact with the people with whom they will work in the near future. If the teams are permanent put a mandate base. For example a person may not stay in such a team for more than six months or a year. The period must be long enough for the people to adapt and achieve actual results, yet short enough so that they can't become a silo, after all their primary role is to serve as a ventilator to the already existing silos.

As we discussed above one of the biggest problems that comes with the silos is the continual withholding of information. By establishing common platforms and systems in the company, this problem can be resolved relatively easily. Give people access to the same data. This will make hiding information a lot harder.

Тhe Kanban method for organization and visualization of the work processes is an option to be considered for that purpose. On your project boards you have everything that is being done at a time, who is doing it, and how long it is taking. And if you do not want to use an actual board and sticky notes, online solutions such as Kanbanize provide the same visibility in a digital format.  Except for white boards and sticky notes Kanban appends you with a culture of sharing, by holding daily standup meetings between members of each team and regular strategy meeting for the whole company. If the organization is too large to fit all of the people at one place, at least representatives of every department must attend. At these meetings everybody has the word. Managers and employees alike discuss together KPI's, priorities, and potential hurdles for their departments. Everybody is free to ask questions and to seek help from the other departments.  

As we said earlier, organizational silos are not in themselves a bad thing, so do we really have to completely destroy them?

Grain silos keep different types of agriculture separate, but they do not keep them in a vacuum, instead there are openings, which allow air to get in. The main purpose of the silos is to keep together the grain and if you break them, all of it will end up falling out. If we consider this comparison when it comes to organizational silos, the result of breaking them may very well be the same. The organization may become complacent and the work break down of their entire project may fall apart.

Ventilating the silos is not a simple task and the main difference between breaking and ventilating them is that the focus does not disperse. In order to ventilate the silos in your company, you need to boost the sharing culture within and build bridges between the different silos, by which the information can cross freely from one to another. Whether it is going to be by creating cross-department teams, holding regular meetings between the departments or by finding a way of your own.

The lack of a sharing culture leads to segregation and withholding of information in a company. So, instead of breaking the silos holding our teams together, why don't we just “ventilate” them, so to speak, more effectively by encouraging an environment of necessary transparency? This will prevent the development of a silo mentality, yet allow our organizations to keep their focus, without making drastic changes to the individual organization’s process.

About the Author

Alexander Novkov is Marketing Expert at Kanbanize where he specializes in content marketing and social media. Before getting into the tech world he was an economic reporter for the Bulgarian media OFFNews. Alex is passionate about creative writing and continuous improvement. 


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