Theoretically and historically, organizations fall into one of several types; functional, divisional, or matrix structures, to name a few. Scientific management has shaped how we approach the division of labor, and it has some undeniable premises—regardless of the bad rap it gets. One of those problems, of course, is organizational silos.
As humans, of course, we specialize in different things. Organizations are human systems, and we contribute unique competencies and strengths to add value in distinct ways. Evolution has taught us that we are better together, and we do aspire to leverage that in achieving a shared vision.
But when the emphasis lies too heavy on the ‘systems’ part, the ‘human’ reality gets sadly neglected. Aiming to function “like a smoothly oiled machine”, or “like clockwork” means that it’s very easy for communication to drop on our list of priorities. As people and teams, we can focus closely on our immediate surroundings—a specialization, division, unit, or project team—and leave ourselves less energy for holistic thinking.
Essentially, that’s when we start to adopt what I sometimes think of as a “mercenary” mindset.
When this thinking is scaled up to a team level, we see organizational silos – units, functions, or even whole departments that are focused on their own respective interests and goals.
People in silos can often invest all their efforts into doing their best work, but inevitably, silos are like different disks and drives on an outdated, fragmented machine. With no regular communication, they are slower and suboptimally aligned.
Both systems and human signs can indicate that your organization needs to defragment. Regarding the former, most leaders come into their roles with an already good eye for spotting systems problems. Usually, they will recognize most bottlenecks, inefficiencies, or losses, and consider how processes can be adapted for a smoother workflow.
What’s harder to spot is the human warning signs of silo mentalities, and often these are the root causes which need permanent addressing. Beliefs, perspectives, and even biases that contribute to an “us versus them” mindset in the first instance. Because organizations and machines both tend to fragment gradually, we’re usually in the thick of things before realizing that we’re operating as silos.
It’s also why organizational silos can frequently be stubborn to defragment if they aren’t addressed directly. Because lack of communication is one of the signs of silos within organizations, they are best tackled by opening up dialogue. Not just a narrow, problem-focused discussion about the issue at hand, but a more dynamic process of learning to connect with one another and establish a common playing field. My experience is that it’s often an unlearning process just as much as anything else.
As we’ve seen, organizational silos often begin with leadership mentalities – it’s the beliefs underpinning leaders’ behaviors that frequently trickle down through the company. As teams experience certain ways of thinking, acting, and reacting, it’s hard not to take them as given.
Informal norms are established, divisions and units become more inwardly focused, and without processes and communication it’s tricky to develop shared objectives. Like fragmented hard drives, we see duplication of effort, slightly different meanings assigned to the same information, and less efficient functioning.
We can indeed defragment, and it doesn’t need to take long to lay the groundwork for a more integrated organization. But it requires leaders to step outside their comfort zones and acknowledging the things that aren’t working on a human and holistic level – the attitudes and approaches that are preventing a bigger picture view.
When we start with the why of it all, of course, there are plenty of compelling reasons to take that deeper dive in the first instance and challenge our perspectives.
What do you think? Do people in your company communicate across functions? Can you identify your shared goals and what you’re together for in the first place? If not, it may be time to stop and reflect. Learn more about our Time To Grow Global Leadership Development programs or chat with me on our LinkedIn page.
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