Over the years, Silo Mentality is probably one of the most common issues I’ve had thrown at me from HR Directors, Training Managers and Senior Execs. Usually it’s a case of one team not sharing or working effectively with another with no real sign that anything is going to change. So I thought I’d do an article explaining my view on this issue and my approach when it comes to solving the issue.
What is the cause of Silo Mentality?
Well as you can imagine, there are a number of different elements that lead to people working in Silos. However, I have a few major ones that tend to be the leading causes and allow silos to grow and embed themselves.
For me this is probably the biggest problem with silo mentality. If you allow teams, departments or functions within a business or group to create independence you will create silos. Independence negates the need to converse with others, call on other resources or interact with information outside of their unit. Now there are some situations where companies may legitimately choose to have silos for legal or privacy reasons. We’re not talking about those legitimate situations. We’re talking about the silos that don’t need to be there, serve no real purpose and potentially limit a companies progression. Independence usually starts off small with departments claiming they will perform better if they have control of some element of resources or information. So they start to wall off their own resource, be it marketing support, information systems or admin resources. Over time this then becomes an habitual way of operating and so nobody questions it whilst performance is ok. The more it is allowed, the more independence is created. What the silo teams then fail to see is the increased running costs associated with duplicate resources, systems and processes. Or they get it, but not enough to do something about it.
I mentioned this above briefly. It is common to see resource duplication in areas of silo working. As an example, I worked with a company where an operational department justified their need to have their own marketing team based on client uniqueness and for privacy. As it turns out, the client had never requested any such special treatment and this was nothing more than individuals within the business trying to build ivory towers to fuel their own ego and power trip. The reality is that the marketing resource they had was poorly utilised, lacking in knowledge and was working on information systems that were in isolation to the rest of the marketing function across the business.
Ego & Personality
This is by far one of the biggest issues to do with silo behaviour. The ego of an individual to create a self contained unit that they control, they preside over and they reign supreme. These people will justify by any means keeping the silo in place because it suits their purpose and they have long since convinced themselves it is right for the business too. These people usually fall into two categories, the ivory tower egotists and those who lack confidence and don’t want anyone better robbing them of their piece of the corporate pie.
Reward & Management Processes
This is actually more common than you might think. Some organisations will create reward systems that actually reward silo mentality. As an example, a property business rewards its consultants on reaching their leads and sales targets individually. When challenged about creating a more joined up organisation sharing information and resources, individuals typically responded with “why would I do that? I get paid on what I deliver so I have to make sure I achieve that first”. The fact is that this company’s reward strategy supported silo behaviour. It also happens with management processes across businesses where one part will create a performance management process or absence system that is different and disconnected from others around the business. I’ve seen this quite often in large multi-sited, multi-discipline businesses such as professional services and investment banks. Again, functions will happily justify this way of operating to themselves to maintain the status quo.
So, in my experience, the above are some of the most common and biggest reasons silos exist. But what to do about it? Well below I will give a short insight into my views on each of the above in terms of solutions.
Desire & Inertia
I didn’t mention this above as it exists subliminally in all of the above issues, however, it is one that is likely to scupper any change if it is not dealt with first. Like many changes in organisations, it needs to start at the top. If there is no desire to change then you are missing the first step. Build a case to show the potential benefits to the business of reducing duplicate resources, using them more efficiently, sharing expertise universally across the business and the transfer of skills and experience through shared working, networking and forums. Use case studies from across the net and highlight stories where the benefits have been realised. Use any means you can to make the case for wanting to change, more than staying the same. Your aim here is to create just enough desire in your senior team that they want it to happened and are prepared to put their voice to it. Once you have created the desire, get them involved in cross-company communications about the changes. Get them to sponsor it in various forums and media. This will create the inertia that helps the business to understand that not only is change coming but it’s coming their way, now! Once you the desire and inertia cracked, keep the inertia going through senior sponsorship. There is always a “trail off” period where the initial activity is over and things slow down. This is when the silo groups will start to try and reinforce their silos and so continued inertia is required to overcome this period, and I guarantee that it will happen sometime between 6-12 weeks of beginning this journey!
Reduce the Independence
It might seem obvious but if you have silo entrenched behaviour this will be tougher than you think. The first steps are to find those aspects of silo functions where some commonality can be created. This may be marketing resource that you reorganise into a corporate centralised function, or maybe it is an information system that you consolidate to allow shared use across the business. Look at each function to identify what it is that they are doing that many other places in the business also do. Once you have a list of these common aspects, start to assess them for ease of implementation against cost of doing so and the likely impact across the organisation. Then from this priority list, seek the senior team buy in to drive the inertia down that direction. It’s always good to start with some things that are simpler and non-threatening to help create a tide of change that people can become part of comfortably. The more elements you can move back to a centralised way of operating, the more functions will have to interact and share. One point I would make with this is “know how much is enough”. You can easily go too far with centralising and removing silos in the same way as not going far enough. Set out your vision early on so you know where you are trying to get to in reducing the silos.
I have largely covered this above. Departments will justify admin resource, marketing resource, finance resource, even equipment and assets in their quest for silo supremacy! Your goal here is to understand where the duplication of these resources is unnecessary and costly to the business. I often begin looking at what these resources do and comparing the activity across functions. There is always lots of common activity going on which helps justify centralising things. The other thing I try to understand early on is how well utilised the resources are. Often I find they are not effectively used and may even be doing different activities to those they should be doing because there is either not enough work to support them or they lack the skills and knowledge. Once a function has its own resource they will rarely ever want to let it go. If you can get a good handle on commonality and effectiveness, you’ll be well on your way to justifying centralised or pooled resourcing.
Ego & Personality
There is no simple way to tackle people’s egos and personality traits that drive silo mentality. If they’ve done it once, they’ll likely try it again. I have found a couple of things that seem to help. I would say first that I never try to change the individuals concerned. This is not about personality realignment! What I try to do is educate them. Sometimes I will ask senior members to mentor a group of individuals, educating them in the issues around balancing cost, profit and shareholder value and the impact they have. Other times I will get involved in coaching people directly to try and help set some new ways of understanding issues and creating new work patterns. Then, sometimes I will suggest someone be moved to another part of the business to change the dynamics of their silo. Often it will be a swap or secondment opportunity with another individual in the business. On rare occasions I will suggest that someone may not be right for the changes the business is going through and it may be better to help them find alternative employment which will benefit them and the organisation.
Reward & Management Processes
For me, this issue can be a complete brick wall depending upon where the issue exists. For example, I was working with an organisation who wanted their sales people to share more information regarding clients, approaches to selling and tactics with each other to help everyone improve. Most of the sales people understood the rationale and though it was a great idea. So why then did it have no affect on changing their way of working? Well, it was because the system of rewarding performance hadn’t changed. Individuals were still rewarded on hitting their own targets and achieving large bonuses for surpassing targets. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to share and support others, they were just motivated to achieve and exceed their targets first. Most of the time, there was no inclination to deviate from that focus. After all, they wouldn’t earn anything from sharing and they wouldn’t get paid for supporting others, so why would they? The solution here is not a pleasant one because it inevitably means upset and disruption for people who may already be performing well on their own. The way in which people are rewarded and performance managed needs to change. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on rewards that include team bonuses and even divisional bonuses. By expanding the performance reward framework, people have to think outside of their current mindset if they want to continue to earn the same rewards. The downside to this solution is that often people feel like they are now having to do more for less. This is common and is just the individual trying to move their thinking from the old to new way of operating. This just needs time, perseverance and patience.
A word of warning
With all of the above, there is no doubt you will be opening a can of worms and most definitely people will get frustrated, angry and maybe even consider leaving the company because of the changes you are trying to make. Your ability to make a smooth, speedy and pain-free transition comes down to how effectively you communicate, support and guide people through the change. Our human motivation is always to remain in that state that we find comfortable and happy. If anyone challenges this we get stressed, the more stressed we get, the more volatile our behaviour gets. Be mindful of this when taking on this kind of change project.
Well, I hope those of you reading this article and contemplating tackling your silos, will find this of some use. It may not be the entire recipe book to eradicating silo mentalitybut it will start you cooking well.tweet