The subject of silos is well examined. Countless articles caution against the perils of silos: They can cause conflict and resentment, damage employee morale, create operational inefficiencies, and undermine collaboration and innovation. The subject is persistent for a reason — it is hard to break down boundaries within an organization, and there is no formula that works for every company.
Silos and fragmentation arise when different departments or divisions — or individuals within them — either cannot or do not interact with one another. Instead, an “ownership” culture takes root. Teams struggle with the practicality of sharing ideas and knowledge with other teams, but they also fail to grasp the notion of sharing information in the first place. A company’s common goals become secondary and sometimes feel at odds with an individual team’s pursuits.
Insularity like this stifles innovation and obstructs a company’s progress. Collaboration across disciplines and divisions drives innovation, but it is nearly impossible to innovate if teams are unwilling or unable to communicate.
Delivering Through Division
It is equally hard to execute strategies under a common vision in this context. Silos get in the way of building and sustaining trust, sharing ideas freely, learning and working collaboratively, and achieving shared goals.
This is not a problem exclusive to the business world. In academia, for example, silos are codified by disciplines like history, literature, chemistry, and biology. Considering the history of universities, this makes sense. Universities are in the business of knowledge, and the best scholars in a field possess the level of expertise needed to expand knowledge in their chosen field.
This becomes problematic when specialization comes at the expense of cross-departmental interaction. This is a well-recognized struggle in the academic world, though leaders are finding ways to address it thoughtfully and without devaluing expertise itself.
One major emphasis in academic research is to encourage convergence, which is a mode of solving complex scientific challenges that require knowledge from a wide range of disciplines. Sequencing the human genome, for example, required biologists, computer scientists, chemists, and others to work together. Improving our understanding of how diseases spread globally via insects benefits from the expertise of vastly different fields — from immunology to human geography to environmental science.
Business leaders can draw insight and lessons from academia’s model. Companies generally have more flexibility and freedom to direct or redirect existing resources to facilitate cross-disciplinary pursuits, which can counteract silos and foster innovation. Furthermore, businesses do not have to conform to the same rigid structures that govern practices at many universities. We can be more creative in how we set up our businesses, and we can also adjust (or upend) structures and operations when the need arises.
By and large, companies have more flexibility than universities to address silos in creative ways. We should embrace the freedom to do this to counteract silos at all levels and stages.
Thrive In Spite of Silos
Expert knowledge in a given discipline is a good thing because it provides an asset for an organization. As with universities, teams or departments in a company organized around specific expertise are formed with the intention of promoting advancement. It is important not to devalue this expertise but rather to encourage it.
The key is harnessing the power of expertise without falling into the silo trap. What are some practical things C-suite leaders can do to encourage this practice?
- Set the tone from the top. Create a learn-it-all culture where respect, trust, and communication must be shared between employees and leaders. Employees should feel free to share ideas and feedback with leadership and across divisions within the context of the company’s broader goals. They should also feel empowered to spend time examining new ideas and growing in the ways they want to grow professionally — individually and as teams.
- Know what you don’t know. No one can be an expert in every field. It is essential to be fluid and adaptable from the C-suite, and it is equally important to always be humble enough to admit in any given situation what you don’t know. Which is likely a lot.
Admit that as a rule, and surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. Let them know how much you rely on them. Prioritize hiring systems-level thinkers and passionate learners for every position in the company. You want to create a team of people who are able to build and share knowledge over time.
- Share responsibility and accountability. It should be clear to employees how every person benefits when the team achieves a shared, companywide goal or milestone. This creates a sense of ownership that can go a long way toward tearing down silos and building a positive culture. Harnessing a diversity of expertise, perspectives, backgrounds, and experience accelerates innovation. No one wins when internal barriers get in the way of innovation or inhibit a company’s progress.
Such barriers — the “silo mentality”— can reflect serious problems in an organization’s culture, structure, and leadership. Sometimes they are more addressable, especially in the cases of new and growing companies. These boundaries require careful thought and action to overcome, but a commitment to eliminating this sort of insularity can be incredibly empowering.
Written by Dr. Joe DeSimone.
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