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The 10 Components to break silos

Usually silos rise up not because of what executives are doing purposely, but rather because of what they are failing to do: provide themselves and their employees with a compelling context for working together.

Breaking silos is not easy. There are always physical, emotional and even spiritual reasons for why they exist in the first place.

Breaking silos is not quick. It involves a process over several months probably starting with the Top managers and progressively touching every person in the organisation, or at least until the "tipping point" has been reached (when about 15% to 20% of people are behaving in the new way.

To break the pattern our program usually involves addressing most or all of the following 10 components:

1. Providing a strong common vision

The blame for silos and politics belongs at the top of the organisation. Every departmental silo in any company can ultimately be traced back to the leaders of those departments who fail to understand the interdependencies that must exist amongst the executive team or who have failed to make those interdependencies clear to the people in their own departments.

Without context, employees at all levels (especially executives) easily lose their way. Even the most well-meaning intelligent people get distracted and confused amidst the endless list of tactical and administrative details that come their way every day. Pulled in many directions without a compass, they peruse seemingly worthwhile agendas under the assumption that it will be in the best interest of the organisation as a whole. But after a while, employees in different divisions begin to see their colleagues moving in different directions, and they begin to wonder why they are not on board. Over time, their confusion turns into disappointment that eventually becomes resentment, even hostility, towards their supposed team-mates. And then the worst thing of all happens, they start working against those colleagues on purpose! This is a tragedy because most employees deep within an organisation have a genuine interest in working well across divisions.

2. Changing the culture

Developing depth, connection and meaning in conversations and stories is far too important to be left to chance. It must be managed carefully. A process is required to build trust, understanding and relationships.

Simply put, trust means confidence. The opposite is distrust or suspicion.

Trust is the one thing that is common to every relationship, whether in a team, a family, an organisation, a nation, an economy or even in a civilisation.

Trust is the one thing which, if removed, will destroy even the most powerful government, the most successful business, the most thriving economy, the most influential leadership, the greatest friendship, the strongest character, the deepest love. On the other hand, trust is the one thing that has the potential to create unparalleled success and prosperity in every dimension of life.

Many managers think trust is something you have or you don't. The reality is that trust can be created and destroyed. Many managers believe you can't teach trust. The reality is that trust can be taught and learned and it can become a strategic advantage. Indeed trust and cooperation may be the largest single competitive advantage today in a world where intangible assets (relationships, knowledge, culture and time) are so much more important than tangibles.

3. Changing how managers manage

Top management has a major role in developing trust in an organisation and it works in a totally counterintuitive way. To get trust, Tops must show their weaknesses. Tops need to be able to say things like:

  • "I don't know the answers"
  • "I am sorry"
  • "I screwed up".

This is counterintuitive because leaders are told to be strong.

The leader has to demonstrate vulnerability first, otherwise others will feel it's too risky to be human; and there's not much trust where people feel unable to be human. Others give up when Tops can't (or won't admit they are wrong).

Building a cohesive leadership team is the first critical step that an organisation has to take in order to give it the best chance of success. In many ways an organisation is nothing more than a network of relationships and conversations. If these conversations lack depth the relationships will suffer and connections will be weak. Stories and organisational myths are essential to culture and need to be managed. For more details see...

4. Changing the personal beliefs of managers

In my experience it's vital to work on the world-view of managers. For example:

If managers don't believe in a vision that is significantly bigger than they can achieve on their own they have little incentive to work together.

If they believe the world is highly connected and this is critical to business success they will put effort into connecting.

If they believe in a world of scarcity then they are unlikely to help each other.

If they believe their organisation is like a machine they will not spend as much time on softer-skills as if they think it is like a living system.

Finally, if the top management does not role-model collaboration and constantly speak about it nothing will happen.

5. Changing the way people are structured

Structure can be important but not in the way that most managers assume. For example if managers work only as the head of their business, silos will be more likely than if they are regularly required to work as members of cross-discipline teams on organisational-wide issues.

Action learning is an particularly useful tool that allows the involvement of the entire business (value) chain to solve organisational problems. In this process bureaucracy is broken down, people start talking outside the silos, it facilitates the exchange and sharing of ideas and generates new knowledge; internal networks are developed and people become aware of the organisation's resources.

Other vital tools for bringing people together to build trust include:

  1. Peer-to-peer development
  2. Open Space Technology
  3. Systems Thinking.

6. Changing the way processes work

As organisations grow, they tend to sacrifice the creativity, energy and vision that made them successful in favour of hierarchical, bureaucratic structures and strictures; thus killing the entrepreneurial spirit as they create order. Exciting companies thus transform themselves into ordinary companies, and mediocrity begins to grow in earnest.

Indeed, bureaucratic cultures arise to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which arise from having the wrong people on the bus in the first place. Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage a small percentage of the wrong people, which in turn drives away the right people. It is far more sensible to put in place processes and procedures that benefit the right people; these always open up silos, empower people to work across the organisation and connect people at all levels.

If unit managers are also given accountability for organisational-wide processes they will be forced to work across units in order for the process to work.

7. Changing the way managers are rewarded

Managers who are rewarded only for the success of their unit will be more siloed than managers who are rewarded for their success in collaboration or their contribution to the whole organisation.

8. Changing the way managers are measured.

Managers who are measured only on the success of their unit will be more siloed than managers who are measured on their success in collaboration or their contribution to the whole organisation.

9. Changing the way politics is executed

If managers and staff think decisions will be imposed anyway, there is little incentive to contribute to anything other than those things they can control. And control them they will, because, they have little control over anything else.

10. Changing the technology.

Information and technology are vital glues within the organisation and yet they are sometimes established independently within units and therefore information can not easily cross between units.

So where do you start?

Back to the main page on silos

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