Silo busting – improving cooperation between parts of the organisation whilst maintaining their integrity and internal alignment

Silo busting challenges the natural, innate human tendency to align with others similar to ourselves. Traditional organisation structures amplify this tendency and by measuring the performance of each part separately, we further reinforce silo mentalities. The end result of this is local optimisation and fragmentation of the whole.

I cut my consulting teeth as a member of the world’s leading technology and innovation management practice. Our clients were mostly high-tech businesses throughout Europe, Asia and the US. And just about every one of them had problems with silos.

Silo busting in high-tech firms

Effective cooperation between Marketing, Research & Development (R&D) and Manufacturing functions is critical to success in high-tech firms. But the people in each of these functional silos rarely regard their ‘colleagues’ in the other silos in a positive light.

This is represented visually in the 3×3 grid in the image below.

Silo busting Marketing R&D Manufacturing

The left most column represents each function’s respective view of Marketing. In the top left box, Marketing see themselves as sophisticated business creators. Meanwhile, in the middle box R&D see Marketing as ‘liars who will say anything to get a sale’. And in the bottom box, Manufacturing see Marketing as ‘living the high-life on a company expense account’.

How R&D is seen by each function is represented in the middle column. Starting from the top again, Marketing see R&D as ‘kids playing with their technology toys’. In the middle box, R&D see themselves as ‘technology innovators’. Whilst in the bottom box Manufacturing see R&D as impractical boffins.

And finally, each function’s view of Manufacturing are represented in the right most column. Starting again from the top, Marketing see Manufacturing as factory workers. In the middle box, R&D see Manufacturing as risk-averse Luddites. And in the bottom box, Manufacturing see themselves as ‘Champions of Quality’.

Silo busting is not just a problem in high-tech

This tendency to fragment into silos does not only afflict high-tech firms. All organisations tend to organise, manage and measure critical functions separately. And more often than not this results in fragmentation and misalignment. Once perspectives, attitudes and behaviours such as these begin to form, they tend to become self-reinforcing and self-sealing.

(From a systems thinking perspective, silos are a consequence of the ‘accidental adversaries’ systems archetype).

Silos reinforce “us” and “them” attitudes that result in mistrust, mistakes and missed opportunities. Unsurprisingly, eliminating braking friction in organisations, teams and working relationships invariably requires and results in improved cooperation across silo boundaries.

When working with a new client organisation, the first sign that silos exist is when people from one part of the organisation describe ‘colleagues’ in another part of the organisation as unprofessional, incompetent or badly intentioned.

Silo busting in a global petrochemical businessSilo busting engineer

One example was a global business building huge multi-billion dollar petrochemical installations in some of the planet’s most inhospitable locations.

The engineering standards group in corporate HQ worried that their colleagues in the field were not following their standards. They wanted to know: “why are our field engineers so non-compliant?”

The short answer was that they had to be, to get the job done…

Running a multi-billion-dollar petrochemical plant build project in the extreme and unpredictable environment of eastern Russia is no cake walk. The technical hurdles and the sheer physicality are bad enough, but there are also major commercial challenges. Add in a ‘burn rate’ of millions of dollars per day, complicated by multiple partners each with different agendas. And to cap it all off, constant interference from local and central government politicians, not to mention the Russian Mafia…

Silo busting rule XSblahTo maintain progress in such a complex and challenging context, the field engineers had be very dynamic. They worked as a close-knit team of trusted colleagues, meeting frequently to re-plan and execute next steps. To them, the people writing ‘ridiculous rules irrelevant to reality on the ground’ looked like bureaucratic idiots.

However, in the eyes of those writing the rules (in the comfort and safety of their offices), ‘professional’ meant fully documented compliance. And field engineers ‘treating the rules with contempt’ look a lot like ‘unprofessional cowboys’…Silo busting rule in bin

After many years respectively spent in their vastly different realities, two cadres of engineers had emerged. Each was trapped in its own silo mentality, with different and mutually incompatible definitions of ‘professional’.

From their respective vantage points, their colleagues seem unprofessional, incompetent or badly intentioned and therefore in need of fixing…

Silo busting in corporate headquarters functions

Organisations often issue policies and procedures that are manifestly unfit for purpose. Of course they don’t mean to do this. But it’s what happens when those writing the rules have a poor appreciation of the reality ‘on the ground’.

Corporate Accounting, HR, Compliance and similar functions can easily become too isolated and insulated from reality on the ground. And the greater the psychological and/or physical distance between parts, the greater the risk of silos.

To people stuck in silo mentalities, other colleagues seem to need ‘fixing’. As a result, central corporate HQ functions design and impose control and monitoring systems that make it harder for people to do their real work ‘at the coalface’.

New rules and regulations imposed ‘from on high’ invariably increase, rather than reduce, braking friction.

People are not stupid, so they can usually find ways to ‘game’ the rules to their advantage. When ‘corporate’ finds out this is happening they usually get busy writing another round of new rules to stop the ‘games’. Those on the receiving end then get busy on new ways to circumvent them ‘in the real world’.

As this cycle repeatedly plays out, mutual trust plummets, strengthening existing silos. In the petrochemicals example above, the ‘cycle of non-compliance’ ended up on the desk of the global CEO. When he told the field engineers to comply, the company’s most powerful and successful project manager challenged him by asking “what do you want us to deliver – your mission-critical project or shed loads of meaningless paperwork?” Not surprisingly the CEO chose the project…

This naturally annoyed the engineering standards group. But it also opened them up to some serious soul-searching about how they could add value in today’s reality – a very different reality to when their department had first been set up.

Silo busting through learning journeys that change perspectives and attitudes

Unless silos are addressed, efforts to improve how things work end up in win-lose battles between warring factions.

It can be tempting to tackle silos by making changes to organisational structures and metrics. Such changes are generally required, but as outputs rather than inputs. Fiddling around with org charts and ‘scorecards’ usually just replaces one set of silos with another.

A much better place to start is by encouraging cooperation across the boundaries of existing silos. This means looking at a variety of factors that influence people’s perceptions, attitudes and behaviours.Silo busting men of the world

Ultimately, silos are created, sustained and reinforced in the awareness, perceptions, attitudes and mindsets that form the unique ‘realities’ of individual human beings. Getting people to cooperate and ultimately co-create a better future for the organisation and themselves depends on those in different areas, functions and factions understanding and appreciating each other’s realities and respective contributions.

In the past, when the psychological job contract was based on the expectation of a whole career with the same organisation, this sort of learning could often be achieved through moving key people around to gain experience in other relevant areas of the business.

An effective approach that’s better suited to today’s different psychological job contract is through specific, tailored learning journeys. Well designed and managed learning journeys help key people to escape the traps responsible for the braking friction that holds everyone else back.

My  senior executive’s 20-minute video guide to eliminating braking friction positions learning journeys in the overall context of how to eliminate the specific misalignments causing braking friction in the unique reality of your organisations, teams and working relationships. You can get access to the video guide for free on the homepage by clicking here.

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