6 ways to sidestep working in silos

How to motivate teams to break out of silos and start communicating with each other

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Image Credit: Josh Holinaty

The world is so connected these days, it’s hard to believe that any workplace is struggling with a lack of communication.

Yet working in silos continues to plague organizations of all sizes. It causes interdepartmental communication breakdowns and prevents the collaboration necessary for companies to truly thrive.

How can an organization reckon with the realities of silos while simultaneously break down walls to create more connected teams?

1. Working in silos might not be the core issue

The first thing to recognize is that working in silos isn’t something to avoid at all costs. After all, it’s only natural for workers to work well with others who think in the same ways.

“Working in silos is more natural than working collaboratively. It’s a tribal mentality,” says Ron Ashkenas, co-author of The Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook and The GE Work-Out. “It’s the same thing in organizations. Cutting across silos is an unnatural act.”

As journalist Gillian Tett explains in her 2015 book The Silo Effect, it can also be a matter of necessity. “Professions seem increasingly specialized, partly because technology keeps becoming more complex and sophisticated, and is only understood by a tiny pool of experts,” writes Tett. “Silos help us to tidy up the world, classify and arrange our lives, economies, and institutions. They encourage accountability.”

Silos are often the result of tightly efficient departments, which can be an essential marker in assessing the strength of a company. According to Chris Fussell, co-author of One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams and a former Navy SEAL, the breakdown occurs when the effort of connecting one silo with another becomes too much of a hassle.

“The real problem in most organizations is that those silos are disconnected … and information travels too slowly, resulting in a failure to adapt,” explains Fussell in a 2017 Inc.com interview. “The trick is to connect the silos together effectively.”

In other words, your main goal is to ensure that teams in the organization both want to work together and can do so easily.

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2. Optimize how you communicate

According to Slack’s Future of Work study, 24% of workers are dissatisfied with communication at work, including how information is shared. On top of that, 52% want a workplace where processes are always improving.

Prioritizing transparency and communication on an organizational level can take time. Start with a carefully chosen set of project management tools and a clear set of communication best practices to match.

Also, encourage teams to be conscious of how their colleagues communicate. An engineer might choose to communicate by chat or text, for example, while someone in the sales department might prefer a check-in over coffee.

3. Set the tone from the top

If collaboration is a core component of the way your organization does business, people have to you know, like coming to work and talking to each other every day. It all starts with establishing a positive work environment by:

The more keeping each other in the loop is enforced as part of the culture, the more likely workers will do it.

4. Establish (and honor) regular checkpoints

No matter your organization’s size, ritualize communication on an ongoing basis. To avoid an overload of meetings, you could plan quick weekly check-ins instead. You could also use a RACI matrix to determine the breakdown of responsibilities, including which teams need to be in contact with each other, and when. Workers will eventually feel more comfortable with the act of sharing across silos when they can anticipate it.

“I talked to a CEO of a very large global corporation recently who does a Monday morning meeting,” says Ashkenas. “Everybody around the world—and they switch the times up so that it’s not inconvenient for everybody all the time—takes 20 minutes to just quickly go around and make sure everybody knows what everybody else is doing, what are the issues they might have to deal with together.”

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5. When in doubt, stop, collaborate and listen

If you’ve tried most of this and your silos are simply not connecting properly—or if a bigger, more urgent problem arises—more drastic measures might need to be taken. The GE Work-Out provides one possible solution. It’s an intervention method in which the leaders from teams working on or impacted by a project come together to:

  • Bypass bureaucratic bottlenecks
  • Develop creative, collaborative solutions
  • Empower people to put those solutions into motion immediately

“It takes practice, and a systematic kind of structure,” says Ashkenas. “Leaders have to continually be pushing people to get out of those silos, but gradually over time, you can begin to overcome some of that natural tendency.”

6. Remember why you’re making the effort

If overcoming working in silos is starting to feel like another thing on your to-do list, that’s because it takes work. But disconnection among teams is a liability that can cripple an organization and its employees. Investing time to talk to one another as you go will help your company in the long run.

In her book The Silo Effect, Tett recounts how getting New York City’s municipal departments to share info led to the reduction of deadly fires in derelict apartment buildings. In the long term, regular collaboration is the most efficient, productive way to work.

“The cost of not doing it is far greater than the cost of doing it,” says Ashkenas. “If teams go off to do their own thing, and then months pass, and you realize that the plans don’t work, you have to go back and do them all over again. It leads to all sorts of problems with getting to market on time, dissatisfied customers—the risks are tremendous.”

That said, try not to overthink it. Working in silos might be inevitable, but by building in networks and utilizing the strategies listed above, you can gradually learn to adapt and bridge gaps within them.

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