When looking at an organization’s overall components, be it people, infrastructure, expenses, or revenue pockets, it helps to break them down into individual segments based on their function and similarities in characteristics, and then focus on them one segment at a time. This concept of segmentation, in other words, silos, is often helpful to bring in structure in the organization, but ends up creating an invisible distance that is likely to keep the organization from reaching its potential, despite having the best in-house talent.
Structure is critical, and there are no two ways about that. With variations in the size of business, geographical spread, and multiple functionalities, it is essential to have a mould to define each unit within the organization with an individual set of expectations and goals. What gets missed out often is tying up these individual goals and standards of conduct to an overall unified organizational vision, which if done would not only increase the chances of profitability and revenue, but also contribute to creating a unified employee experience, with clarity in expectations, a common big picture to work towards and individual goals to help move forward towards the bigger picture.
Silos isn’t the enemy though. The enemy is not knowing where to dissolve the silos and encourage cross-functional conversations and brainstorming sessions to come up with the best solutions. There is a famous saying that goes like this,
There is nothing wrong with silos. The actual problem is isolation!
The issue again isn’t silos, but the inability to recognize when to bring down those walls and allow a free flowing two-way communication.
Why break isolation
Functional silos is a great idea to bring all the experts of a field together, and cluster their expertise to identify the most specialized solutions. However, that is likely to work for clients not for your organization’s growth. Such silos are a deterrent to the long-term growth of the organization, making individual departments feel they did all the work, with the marketing team not realizing the efforts put in by the product team, the product team being unable to appreciate the challenges faced by sales, and the sales team being unable to foresee the potential requirements of the creative team to be able to deliver the ideas to the product team. What’s the result? Everyone working under pressure, disharmony and lack of coordination among functions, not knowing where one can extend support to the other, and so on and so forth.
Rich Horwath, Founder and CEO of the Strategic Thinking Institute shared in a company blog a while ago about what he calls the StrategyPrint. In his words, “An effective tool I’ve developed to help leaders set and communicate their business direction is the StrategyPrint. The StrategyPrint is a two-page blueprint for the business. Page one captures the key insights of the business in four areas: market, customers, competitors and company. Page two is the action plan, identifying goals, objectives, strategies, tactics and metrics. By using one common and concise planning instrument, leaders are able to efficiently communicate their strategies to others around the organization so that everyone is on the proverbial “same page”.”
One often thinks of strategic expertise and insights being available with a few, mostly it is presumed to be the exclusive domain of leaders. However, if you create the possibility of employees coming forward to share their ideas and knowledge, you will be surprised to know the magnitude of impact that can be created by combining the expertise of leaders, and employees from across functions.
According to a BSC survey, 73% of companies that outperform their peers have a formal process in place to communicate strategy to others in the company, encouraging both communication and collaboration.
Strike that balance between having specialized expertise and cross-functional talent, to keep your organization on the path to achieving exponential success. Because, when you blind yourself to functional silos, here is what happens:
- Threat to organizational cohesion
- Lack of awareness about internal initiatives
- Inability to appreciate and leverage capabilities and strengths of other functional groups
- Being confined to the same group and skill set for brainstorming ideas
- Lesser innovation opportunities due to lack of cross-functional expertise
How to break isolation
Breaking silos, or rather the isolation that breeds as an outcome of silos, isn’t a one-day process and isn’t as simple as implementing a new policy. It is an organizational change that demands effective communication, among other things that will be discussed below. The intent is key here. Are you breaking silos for a one-time project or initiative, or are you trying to encourage a more open conversation across functional departments, fostering a collaborative, productive and high performing culture for the long run. This intent will drive the efforts that go behind breaking down silos, and thereby the next phase of the organization’s journey.
Some measures you can take to break functional silos are:
- Overcoming hierarchical blocks: For any cultural shift aimed at improving employee experience and changing the organizational culture, it is crucial for the workforce to experience the leadership modeling those behaviors. It isn’t just functional silos but also a mental block of hierarchical silos that requires greater attention. By increasing leadership visibility and accessibility to the larger workforce it will help overcome the mental block of restricting conversation within grades and departments. Regular interactions between leaders, managers and employees will help accelerate moving past such mental blocks by establishing a direct line of communication..
- Encourage open dialogue: Both an inferiority complex and superiority complex are enemies here. It is as important for an employee to speak up, as it is for a leader to listen. In this scenario, establishing an effective communication model where people who are believed to have all the necessary insights seek suggestions from others, encouraging participation with scope of improvising basis those suggestions, will go a long way in helping build such an organizational culture.
- Communicating and reinforcing a clear bigger picture: While every employee will have their individual career path to progress on, it is important to have all such efforts and strategies contribute to the organization’s vision. Identifying the organization’s and individual’s aspirations and aligning the two for a win-win situation is critical to avoid building of isolation.
Have a unified goal in place to direct individual strategies aimed at attaining a common goal.
- Modelling knowledge sharing behavior: Collaboration is core to building a culture of knowledge sharing. Management needs to emulate and foster a culture that encourages resource and information sharing vs resource hoarding.
- Build cross-functional teams for special initiatives: The most relevant practice to break down functional silos is the GE Work-Out strategy, implemented by Jack Welch, Former Chairman and CEO of GE. This strategy essentially entails assigning cross-functional liaisons to enable communication and coordination between departments. Such communication helps build strong working relationships, which ultimately becomes the foundation for knowledge sharing. It also is a great tool to help individual teams become cognizant of how their peers contribute to the overall success of the organization, as departments become privy to what role other departments play and are likely to reach out to each other in the future to seek expertise.
All in all, as highlighted earlier, silos isn’t the enemy, it is the isolation that begins to create that divide between functions. Organizations need to work towards helping individual functions understand each other, equipping everyone with both knowledge and the right resources to go to. The purpose of silos is to have structure in place, to be able to scale. By creating a clear roadmap with vision and values, encouraging transparent two-way communication, and building cross-functional teams with clear KRAs, you can leverage silos and dissolve isolation.