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Working in silos? Here's how to break them down
Illustration by Justin Alm

5 min read

Working in silos? Here's how to break them down

Silos cause communication breakdowns, hinder productivity, and turn us into narrow-minded thinkers. Here's how to break them down once and for all.

Does your workplace suffer from silo mentality? Would you describe your organization as a collection of sealed off departments with few links between them? Is critical information trapped, inaccessible, or sequestered? Do people in one department seem to think differently than people in another department?

If you answered yes to any of these, this article is for you. Silos are a common problem in companies, especially larger ones. Working in silos obstructs communication, hinders productivity, leads to resentment and animosity, and generally just makes work a lot more painful than it needs to be.

As Jamie Notter explains, “What one department does ends up producing a result that causes trouble for another department, either immediately or (more likely) down the road. Silos reinforce the ‘we’ve always done it that way’ syndrome.”

Fortunately, they can be brought down. Let’s take a closer look at how to break down silos and save your organization (and its people) from these pesky roadblocks.

What are silos?

There are a few types of silos I’m going to talk about in this article. They are:

  • Organizational silos: These describe the division of organizations into departments, sub-departments, even sub-companies. They divide up and bracket off different types of people and skill sets as operationally autonomous entities whose objective is to stay focused on its specific goals. This becomes a problem when there’s very little interaction or information-sharing between discrete departments.
  • Information silos: These are often the result of the above (sub)division of labor. When interdepartmental communication breaks down, information is no longer adequately shared and, instead, remains trapped within departments, often to the detriment of the overall organization.
  • Silos of the mind: These are even more damaging than information silos because they’re the unexamined assumptions and ingrained thought patterns that influence everyday decision-making within teams. They’re the result of departmental biases and information hoarding, and over time, can lead to an insular, narrow-minded way of thinking that spells doom for organizations. Once you get trapped in one of these silos, if you’re able to realize it, it’s very difficult to find an exit.

How do silos crop up? Who builds them?

Silos are generally not intentional. They’re not the work of any one person. They arise as the result of a constellation of organizational problems, weak leadership, poor teamwork, personality clashes, and professional disagreements.

1. Communication hierarchies are one cause: as information trickles down from the top, it might get filtered through cynical, resentful people who don’t believe in what they’re working on, don’t trust their leadership team, and therefore fail to share information with people outside their departments. People loyal to a specific leader might form cliques and share information only with people within that circle. In cases like this, the people at the bottom might have no idea what’s going on with the rest of the company.

This kind of mentality starts with professional disagreements and personality clashes and ends with the eventual breakdown of cross-department information flows, which affects the everyday working conditions of people across the organization. And once the walls go up, it’s difficult to bring them down again.

2. A conflicted leadership team is another reason why silos crop up. If egotistical leaders don’t agree on the best path forward, or continue down a path they don’t actually believe in, or fail to communicate to their team why a particular path is the right one, those (personal or professional) conflicts will spread among teams of people. Power struggles between leaders can be very apparent to the rest of the team.

For example, if 1/6th of the organization isn’t onboard because their leader has another path in mind, then that’s 1/6th of the company not performing at full capacity and dragging down the rest of the company. Silos are the enemy of productivity and often the first step towards a wider organizational meltdown.

3. Silos can arise when specialization gets out of control. What starts out with good intentions—forming autonomous departments around specific skill sets, goals, and projects—can turn dysfunctional if departments get hyper-focused on only their projects and objectives.

Extreme focus on a particular aspect of a company can lead to blind spots and a lack of knowledge and concern for what’s going on outside that department. Additionally, as Felix Martin astutely points out, “specialization leads to bureaucratic rivalry, corporate infighting, and the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.”

So how do we break them down?

This is tricky. Ideally, silos are predicted early on and dealt with as companies grow. But that’s just not how things always pan out. The more entrenched silos are, the more challenging it’ll be to bring them down, so it’s crucial to identify and locate their causes as they start to become a problem for your organization.

1. Reach out to other departments. Getting acquainted with a different department’s concepts and daily practices, close enough to understand how they intersect with the concepts and practices of your own team, is one way of flattening silos. To encourage this, leaders should always initiate cross-functional projects that challenge the boundaries between separate departments.

This can take the form of recurring interdepartmental meetings, breakout sessions, or project work. It’s important to find commonalities and emphasize the ways in which the departments work in concert to achieve company goals. Unifying the vision is the goal here.

During their first two weeks at Jostle, new hires make the rounds of every department and meet directly with each team leader. This ensures people get acquainted from day one with other leaders, teams, projects, and ideas. In a way, it demystifies other departments, giving the new hire a more holistic idea of what the company is about.

2. It’s a group effort. Recognize that repairing divides and demolishing silos is an ongoing process and is everyone’s responsibility, not just leadership’s. You can’t force two distinct departments to pay attention to what the other is doing, especially when there’s not much overlap.

Rather, it’s more about encouraging individual team members to step out of the comfort zones of their team or department, and learn about what other teams are working on to meet the objectives of the overall organization. By learning how each puzzle piece fits, people are better equipped to collaborate and work cross-functionally. Instilling curiosity in your people is going to be key.

3. Identify information blockages and open up lines of communication. Dealing with an information hoarder or a data bottleneck can be a challenge. If the cause is larger than any one person, though, you’ll need to incorporate new ways of sharing information with other departments to get the word out.

This can include All Hands meetings where different departments host Q&A sessions, a company intranet that empowers different stakeholders to make announcements on their latest projects, or weekly Heads Up style meeting where attendees can learn what each department has been working on the week prior and what’s coming up in future weeks.

4. Rebuild trust. If your organization’s silos are a result of personal squabbles and lingering resentment, breaking them down can’t happen until trust returns. Teams and leaders that don’t trust each other won’t communicate openly and will have a difficult time dismantling silos between their respective departments.

Building trust again, especially among sworn enemies, is less about singing kumbaya together and more about being honest with each other. Telling the truth, being professional, and recognizing that they’re on the same team (even if they’re in different departments) is the path forward.

Conclusion

Opening up new lines of communication is essential to doing away with all kinds of silos. However, silos that limit the way departments think and behave are another issue altogether. Once people are stubbornly stuck in a certain world, a narrow frame of mind, it’s hard to get them thinking about the bigger picture again. But breaking down the real and imaginary boundaries of silos is one crucial first step.

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Corey Moseley

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