Get started at busting organizational silos

Insights / organization design, silos

Get started at busting organizational silos

Have you found yourself stuck in a silo? With no way to see the sky above? You are not alone.

As organizations grow, they tend to organize around function, product, geography, or some other delineation. Often a diverse set of values, practices, and personalities lead to silos — teams working separately from each other and finding it hard to cross boundaries to collaborate. Most clients I’ve worked with have experienced the harm of silos, and many seek my advice on how to approach the problem. Here are my tips for getting started if you want to bust through the silos in your org:

Work in public

One of the problems with siloed teams is that people don’t have awareness about what’s going on outside their group. This leads to the classic experience that many like to describe as “the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.” The good news for us is that the digital age has made it easier than ever to share information about our work rapidly. The principle to embrace here: make information easily accessible and allow it to flow to those who need it most. When you do this, you’ll see increased connection across teams without endless update meetings (everyone’s favorite, right?).

Take a look at your information practices: how could you allow other teams to view your work-in-progress (on Google Drive, Box, Microsoft Office online, etc.)? How could you enable other teams to see your communication & decisions without attending your meetings (on Slack, email, Microsoft Teams, etc.)? Where are people spending time and effort tracking down information about what other teams are doing? How might you cut that time and effort down to almost zero?

Conduct weekly demos

One of my favorite ways to efficiently connect people across functions and disciplines is the weekly demo meeting. Polished presentations aren’t allowed, because it’s all about current and sometimes messy work-in-progress. Here’s how it works:

  1. Everybody gets into a room (make sure several functions or teams are represented)
  2. A neutral facilitator build an agenda by asking participants what work-in-progress they would like to share
  3. An individual or small team shares their work for 5 minutes and, if they want to, requests feedback or advice on a specific part of it
  4. The facilitator tracks time and keeps moving to get to as many people as possible within the allotted time (usually about an hour)
  5. When everybody leaves, they know where to go to look deeper at the work-in-progress they saw

Strengthen relationships

Silos often develop because people don’t trust each other, aren’t honest with each other, or have stopped caring about each other. If this is true in your organization, you have to address it. You can’t break down functional or team boundaries if people avoid each other. Look for those places of broken trust or signals of poor interpersonal behavior. Consider how you might support the people in those relationships: What new conversations could they have? Do they need help rebuilding trust? Do they need a new model or expectation of what good behavior looks like? This inquiry can help you determine how to intervene at an individual level or a group level. You’ll also want to make sure that you and other leaders are serving as role models — demonstrating care, compassion, and honesty in every interaction.

Rotate roles

Sometimes employees sit in the same role for a long time, and you may see an entire function get built around individual values and style. This helps solidify silos and leaves little room for diverse perspectives or new ways of leading. This phenomenon isn’t inherently wrong, but it is a path that many organizations take by default… and don’t notice it until silos have become an obvious problem. One way to prevent this is to invite (or require) employees to fill multiple roles during their time in the organization. Many folks should have a chance to practice their leadership skills, to connect with customers and users, to come up with innovative product and service offerings, and to get exposed to the nuts and bolts of operations. Self-managing organizations and cooperatives have been experimenting here for a long time. They often have people fill a role for a specified term (one or two years) and then elect them into a different role. Rotating roles helps employees bond with other teams, see new parts of the business, and personally develop their passions and interests. It has the added benefit of changing power dynamics over time so that more people have more access to different types of authority.

These are just a few tools to keep in your toolkit as you go about busting silos. Every organization is different, and your job is to try interventions that you think might work, learn from them, and refine the standard expectations and ways of working. So start small and try things. Keep in touch, and send me your stories about what works and what fails miserably :)

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  • How to plan a weekly “Action meeting”
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