Many organizations today that struggle with change and fall short of fulfilling their ultimate vision spend countless days, weeks and months - not to mention resources - trying to understand why they can't seem to circumvent the barriers standing in their way. And often, they can't quite define what those barriers are.

I wrote an article in 2013 in which I talked about the silo mentality and some of the ways organizations can make strides in eliminating the structure and behavioral barriers that prevent communication, collaboration and ultimately - success.

The silo mentality can be defined as a mind-set present when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same organization. This type of mentality will reduce efficiency in the overall operation, reduce trust and morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture.

Silo is a business term that has been passed around and discussed at many boardroom tables over the last 30 years. Unlike many other trendy management terms this is one issue that has not disappeared over the years. Departmental silos are seen as a growing pain for most organizations of all sizes. It is the duty of the executive leaders and management to prepare and equip their teams with the proper mind-set and vision to break down these destructive organizational barriers.

A Lesson from the Military

In many of my writings, I equate the ever-transforming global business environment to the military's post 9-11 reality. A few years into the wars, American and coalition forces started to realize the twentieth century military mechanism wasn't going to work against a dangerous, dynamic and vastly decentralized enemy. We had the best warriors, intelligence specialists and civilian organizations at our disposal yet weren't nimble enough to move at the speed these wars required.

In the Navy SEAL teams - and the platoon, troop and Team level, we approach leadership, collaboration and communication in a decentralized manner. But imagine piling on all of the other conventional forces, intelligence agencies and allied forces across the globe trying to work towards a single mission. And was that single mission understood clearly by all? Did it mean different things to different people? Was the "what" clearly defined but the "how" more loosely defined by different units?

In the early days, many would agree that yes, coalition forces working to quell insurgencies and defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, for example, had disjointed visions for how to accomplish this lofty goal. Why? In large part due to a vague vision, bureaucracies and organizational silos.

The traditional hierarchical structures, cross-branch sub-cultures and information sharing methods were fighting against us. Senior leaders finally realized that the military in general and various task forces at the tip of the spear had to transform into modern twenty-first century organizations that were aligned behind a single narrative for the vision.

If you have ever worked in a large corporation this might sound familiar to you. Actually, this can exist in small businesses as well.

The Structures Holding You Back

I can't think of many organizations out there that don't want to be more collaborative, have an aligned vision, communicate better or improve trust and accountability. You don't have to be a CEO or have a MBA to understand how all of those things, when executed well and ingrained in the culture, would lead to amazing financial returns. However, many organizations struggle with their historical systems and structures not wanting to move away from them. Fearing the loss of control.

Silos and There Effect on Vertical and Horizontal Alignment

Talking about "more" collaboration and creating cross-functional teams is great, but this can also fail miserably without a clear shared understanding of the narrative behind the ultimate mission. Often, at least from an outside perspective, internal vertical alignment as to the mission at hand can be fine while horizontal alignment across silos is lacking. The sub-cultures and ideas on how to achieve the goal may vary which leads to these departments, divisions or "cross-functional" teams to actually work against each other in many ways.

And sometimes, silos exist both vertically and horizontally at the same time. Senior leaders don't have enough access to important ground intelligence from their front line troops while directives and information from the top gets lost in translation on its way down.

Silo Destruction - An Example

In my last company, we developed a renewed vision to be in a better position to design and deploy truly integrated solutions for our clients. But to actually achieve this, it went way beyond better data analysis, creative thinking and piling more services on top of one another. Custom strategies required a new approach to talent acquisition, departmental structures and most of our existing processes. We merged teams for better collaboration, implemented new reward mechanisms, reworked reporting structures, redesigned the whole office and literally knocked down walls - literal and figurative.

This is not to say that the solution is to move completely away from traditional hierarchies and build only open networks and teams without structures and resources to support them - that could also be catastrophic in many organizations. But a bit of both can bring stability and collaboration at the same time. In this environment, communication moves more quickly, learning increases, lessons can be applied across departments and strategies align to support a single vision.

The Behaviors and Mindsets That Need to Shift

The silo mindset does not appear accidentally nor is it a coincidence that most organizations struggle with interdepartmental turf wars. We must address the fact that organizational silos can also be the result of a conflicted leadership team, and that conflict trickles down causing unrest and employees becoming fearful of sticking their necks out.

Many executives may look at their organization and dismiss department inefficiencies and lack of cross-functional solutions due to immature employees, lack of basic training, or simply the inability for some employees to play nicely with one another. Unfortunately, while these behaviors may be a result of the silo mentality; it is not usually the root cause. These assumptions will actually lead to long term harm to the organization as a whole by creating resentment and cynicism within the teams. It is the responsibility of the leadership team to recognize this and rise above to create effective, long-term solutions that are scalable, executable, and realistic.

How to Succeed in Complex Environments

Organizations that will succeed in this more volatile and complex business environment have to not only develop and regularly communicated an aligned vision - and the specific narrative to support it - but also answer the questions:

"What behaviors and mindsets need to change in order to accomplish this goal?"

"What barriers need to be broken down to accomplish this change effort?"

More meaningful relationship building outside of the silos people exist in will gradually dilute the strength of those barriers. This also improves trust and willingness to regularly share important information. Everyone is working towards a common goal and all understand their roles in move the ship in that direction.

It didn't happen overnight, but when senior leaders throughout the military ranks, especially in special operations, got behind this change effort, started demonstrating the new behaviors themselves and talked about the new vision every day; only then didn't the culture start to shift to align with the vision and strategy.

Here are 5 steps to encourage a unified front and open up the lines for communicating a powerful vision for change.

1. Create a Unified Vision.

As written by Patrick Lencioni in his book Silos, Politics and Turf Wars; "Silos - and the turf wars they enable - devastate organizations. They waste resources, kill productivity, and jeopardize the achievement of goals." He goes on to advise leaders to tear down silos by moving past behavioral issues and address the contextual issues that are present at the heart of the organization. For many organizations, this means that not only do all employees of the company need to row in the same direction, but the executive teams must be engaged and at the forefront steering the boat.

It is imperative that the leadership team agrees to a common and unified vision for the organization. There must be a large level of executive buy in and core understanding of the company's long term goals, department objectives, and key initiatives within the leadership team prior to passing it down to the teams. A unified leadership team will encourage trust, create empowerment, and break managers out of the "my department" mentality and into the "our organization" mentality. And the leaders must consistent with all of their behaviors first before others will follow.

2. Work Towards Achieving A Common Goal.

Once the leadership team has agreed to the over-arching unified vision of the organization, it is important that this team determines underlying root problems that may be causing the ripple effect of silos. Many times there are multiple tactical goals and objectives identified, but it is up to the Leadership team to remain on task and define the single, qualitative focus that is shared among them as the top priority. Once the "elephant in the room" has been identified it is important that all executives and all members of management work together towards achieving that common goal. It is also important that all employees are aware of this objective and understand how they can make an impact individually.

In Virginia Anderson and Lauren Johnson's book, Systems Thinking Basics, they define systems thinking as a holistic and big-picture view of the whole. It is recognizing the interconnections between parts of a system and synthesizing them into a unified view. This thinking, along with a unified focus, should be applied across teams to encourage collaboration, team work and ultimately accomplishment of the common goal.

3. Motivate and Incentivize.

Kudos to execs and management teams who are able to successfully establish a unified, common goal and understand how the various parts of a whole intertwine. Half of the battle is won. The final steps in eliminating silos cover execution and implementation. Motivation can vary across teams, and most importantly across individuals. What really defines a successful manager is one who is able to identify what key components motivate each of their employees and how to communicate this effectively to a wide-range of audiences. Once the common goal has been identified, each member of the management team must incentivize their employees accordingly.

If your common goal is to revamp the reputation of your company, then one of your objectives might be to improve the quality of your product. If the objective is to improve the quality of the product then your employee incentives should be built to maximize this desired result. For example, someone in product development might receive an incentive for reducing bugs within deadline; while the customer service representative might receive an incentive on increasing customer satisfaction. Incentives will go a long way with motivating employees; however, it is not all that is needed. Managers need to remember that motivation encompasses a wide variety of tactics including common interests, individual investment in growth, shared voice, and positive words of encouragement. All of the tactics described within Motivation are designed to avoid the "it's not my job" attitude and encourage input, team work, and most importantly - productivity.

4. Execute and Measure.

Just like any established goal, it is important that once this goal is defined, it is also measured accurately. The leadership team must establish a time frame to complete the common goal, benchmarks for success and delegate specific tasks and objectives to other members of the management team, and down to front line troops. Empowerment and accountability are key.

It is not uncommon that a large amount of inertia is needed to keep the momentum going. Let's not forget that teams thrive off routine and constant reinforcement. Team work and constant cooperation must be present for the above 3 steps to work properly.

5. Collaborate and Create.

The famous quote by Francis Bacon "knowledge is power" has a very pivotal role in modern organizations. There are a few key factors in creating a thriving and productive team; knowledge, collaboration, creativity, and confidence. Without these four basic factors any team is destined to fail.

To encourage your teams to exhibit all 4 of these traits it is recommended that management allows and fosters cross-departmental interaction. The exchange of knowledge and the collaboration that will inevitably take place between teams is absolutely priceless. To maximize collaboration, knowledge, creativity and confidence it is suggested that management works to reduce unnecessary long and frequent meetings, builds out accessible and small meeting rooms, implements a cross-departmental training system, and encourages constructive feedback from outside departments.

Breaking down the silos is not an easy task for any organization whether it be military, business or other; however, the avoidance of these issues will be more detrimental to the employees and ultimately the overall ability to unite by any transformation effort. The five steps are designed to help facilitate a unified vision and establish realistic steps to providing team members with a clear purpose and means to accomplishing the ultimate common goal. There is nothing more powerful in any organization than having all employees rowing fiercely in the same direction.

And again, these visions don't have to be overly complex or be wild leaps at greatness. They have to be something that the team can connect to, where everyone understands how not only to talk their way to the win, but to behave their way there. A clearly communicated vision, a little restructuring and shift in mindsets coupled with consistency and discipline is how the best organizations are going to thrive in the twenty-first century.

Published on: Jun 21, 2017