What to do about Organizational Silos? Try the Virtual Silo

We all know about silos in our organizations. You hear comments about other departments that somehow put them separate from your group or make them different. Some silos are attractive and people scramble to be part of them, and other silos are avoided at all cost.

We are also each a member of a silo although it might not feel like a silo if it is large enough or the culture is sensitive and supportive. So why do we continue to accept silos and what can we do about them?

The Dark World of Silos
Silo seems to be a bad word in corporate culture. We talk about breaking down silos, building bridges, finding connections, being transparent, cooperating. Or we align to a vision, have workshops on culture and encourage collaboration.

But in all the years organization have existed so too have silos. Even the best run companies still have silos!

The thought is that silos are bad or that somehow they interfere with the delivery of services. In many cases this is true and it is these negative events and behaviours that give silos a bad name.

In fact some Machiavellian individuals may go as far as to promote the negative side of silos if but for any other reason than to have ones self appear enlightened or superior.

You hear the word SILO and you run for the hills unless of course you are part of the silo of conspirators plotting to take down the organization!
"A Silo by any other name would smell as sweet"
But have we lost site of what a healthy silo is actually achieving. To quote a line from Shakespeare:

Tis but thy name that is my enemy

Silo behaviour is almost as ubiquitous as air and just as invisible unless of course it smells bad. Maybe its time to change our view of the silo and look deeper as to what it is and not worry about what it is called.

A few years ago our management team started talking about silos. How they were interfering with efficient operation of the organization and how much time and energy was being wasted in working "around" the problem. Conversations I can guarantee that happen everywhere.

After bashing the silo behaviours of the organization  for an hour (and inadvertently reinforcing our own departments silo) we ran out of energy... Now what?

It was clear to us that we would never be able to eliminate this silo world. I mean how can you change someone else's perspective? We came to the same answer that every therapist will tell you.

You can't change others, you can  only change yourself

What a novel approach to an age old question! Believe it or not this simple and might I say infinitely obvious shift in perspective changed everything. No longer would we helplessly standby and watch a bad silo behaviour impact our performance. We could do something...nay we MUST DO SOMETHING!
The Birth of the Virtual Silo
So the conversation started. We explored what was happening. Did a little more cussing (easiest way to fire up some action right?). Then the revelation.

If you can't beat them...then join them

Now hear me out. We accepted that the silo will not go away so we decided to stop wasting energy talking about the bad ones that were poisoning the environment and feeding the rumor mill.

We would now instead start to support our own positive silos. We would be the change. The obvious next step was to figure out how to work on creating more positive silos and marginalize the negative silos. This was the beginning of the revolution!

Now the term VIRTUAL SILO came after these initial revelations, but the idea was that the silo is here to stay so lets accept that and focus on what they can do instead of what they are called. The smell of roses was in the air.
The Birth of "Strategic Support"
Now taking all the ideas we have talked about so far, where do we go from here? Well it took a bit of work and introspection but we eventually settled on the idea of STRATEGIC SUPPORT. What you may ask is this?

This was our attempt to brand a new breed of silo. It would put us back in a position of influencing positive change across the organization.
This is How it Works
Our department would now be empowered to make positive change by simply supporting others. In fact we took it so far as to make other department successes more important than our own. The process works like this:

  1. be open to other department issues and challenges
  2. Identify a simple yet important issue that you believe you can help improve or eliminate based on your background and knowledge or relationships
  3. approach that person or group and offer to help them improve their situation with no expectation of any reciprocal help
  4. If there is acceptance then make this support a priority until it is resolved or agreed that no further help is needed
  5. reward the investment in time our staff made in others success
  6. do it all over again

We have in fact taken it so far now that as Director of the department, I have my staff document their "Strategic Support" activities in their annual performance plans and track their progress to make sure they stay as a priority.
What are the Results
The results are amazing to say the least!

At first it took a while for team members to believe it when we said that your priority right now is to make sure that the other department succeeds...our priorities do not matter right now. I would say that this was the biggest culture shift. First for me to risk not delivering on our department priorities in exchange for someone else's success and second, for our staffs  confused look when being told to make "them" successful and leave "our" stuff for latter.

Of course its not like we have abandoned our departmental mandate. In fact I would say we have become more effective at delivering our services through the new relationships created.

Why? Well, by creating these transient virtual silos, we had in effect created temporary teams that where really focusing on solving a corporate challenge that in the end would make everyone's life better. And by giving freely, the participants created a special bond of trust and support within these teams. You know what they say "nothing like a good crisis to bring people together".

An unexpected benefit that actually has brought the most value to the experience is the idea of walking a mile in another's shoes. When our staff where given support to help with someone else's priority they got involved. They engaged. And by doing so new perspectives where created. This is the true residual value of this initiative. It is actually eroding the negative silos.

Oh and by the way, we are only talking one or two support initiative a year for maybe 5 percent of our staff. Not a big investment!
Your Challenge
Try this with your department or team and report back on your experiences. Its not rocket science but it sure go us a lot farther ahead!

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