178796318We have all heard the advice to reach outside of our functional silo, to play for the big team, to build cross-functional relationships.

Yet we build silos as fast as we can make them, and we then wonder why people have trouble working together,  leveraging each others’ talents.

Why We Build Silos

Silos form from honest enough intentions:  folks with similar experiences, qualifications, and expertise naturally come together to share experiences, to solve problems, to learn from each other.  We want that, we encourage that.  We colocate  people with the same functional expertise.  We form Engineering Departments and Marketing Departments and Sales Teams and wrap processes around these functions to preserve lessons learned and improve performance.  These  teams develop their own culture, play a role in the hiring of new team members, develop each other.  All good stuff.

Much has been written about how people  form tribes in the workplace.  Tribes certainly form across functional groups, but this desire to associate informally helps drive the building of silos.

We think of the “silo mentality” as some kind of active attempt to form and push an isolated, distorted view.  But the reality is that this isolated mentality is the natural result of our team structure:   our formation of these functional groups comes at a cost – an insular view of things, a group think full of one point of view and devoid for the most part of the influences of the views of folks from other tribes/functional groups/silos.

Or, at least, that is the picture if we don’t bridge the silos and lower the barriers.

What We Can Do About It

So, whether you want/encourage  it or not, informal and formal silos abound.  Yet a healthy flow of views and information and relationships can occur between and among these silos – the walls can virtually fall away – when leadership takes a few simple steps:

1.  Strong cross-functional teams, co-located and led by an empowered cross-functional leader.  To bridge silos you have to well, build a bridge.  Not only organize project teams cross-functionally (as many of us do in Matrix organizations) but also co-locate teams together.  This is actually somewhat rare in my experience that the Marketing and R&D and Advanced Manufacturing and Quality people on a team sit together.  But it works really, really well.  And don’t bother to appoint a cross-functional leader, such as a Project Manager, unless that person has lots of  leeway to make decisions and  authority with the team.

2.  Time and relationships.  Members of a tribe hang out with each other.  To break down silos, folks from different silos need to spend time together, and that will require  encouragement, even some ice-breaking activities.  Team-building exercises may be a bit corny, but some pizzas as part of a regular routine can go a long way.

3.  Formal incentives.  Recognizing teams and individuals who reach across silos is critical.  You will get the things you incentivize/recognize/reward.  And folks can’t emulate behavior that don’t know anything about.

4.  Lead by Example.  If you want cross-silo relationships, you have to reach out to leaders in other functions, spend time with other teams, build cross-silo relationships yourself.  You have to be, as they say, congruent to what you are preaching – and perfectly so.

We are not going to stop building functional and expertise-based teams – but we have really work at avoiding the formation of thick, impenetrable silo walls.

Related Content:

1.  A deeper look at organizational silos:  Break out of the Silo Mentality (www.asaecenter.org)

2.  Some good stuff on the consequence of silos in the world of software development:  Breaking Down Silos, Part I (uxdesign.smashingmagazine.com)

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