silos in organizations

Pebbles to Rockslides

Stop me if you have heard this one before:

It’s late on a Friday, you’re already some hours over when you thought you’d be home, the last task is moments away from completion, and then—disaster:

A manager or employee brings it to your attention that a top-priority, time sensitive task that is not a part of your department is suddenly your charge and not even started yet.

Oh, and before I forget, it must be ready by Monday morning.

Like a pebble carelessly tossed down a hill, a calamitous rockslide threatens the stability of the entire region—and you are directly in its path.

How can this be? Where did you go wrong? Is there any good left in this world worth fighting for?

It is going to be alright. With me: Inhale. Exhale.

Good? Good.

Now, how did we get here? Chances are you are over-siloed.


Defining the Culprit

When the word “silo” appears on this page, you may imagine an agricultural application. Those stoic, dependable towers come to mind that dot the various plains and farming valleys of the world upon which so many foodstuffs rely.

For our purposes, we will go with what’s behind Door #2.

Much like the flexible definition and imagery associated with “silo,” they can manifest in your professional life to either benefit or detriment, intentionally or unintentionally. In my experience, through the mechanisms of the human condition, I find that silos arise naturally, without noticing, and come bearing negative gifts.


On the Origin of Silos

To best understand these invisible walls between office spaces, we must at least understand how they arise in the first place.

From this humble blog post to the auspicious heights of Imperial Rome, silos are a natural byproduct of universal entropy.

“Huh?” you just said.

Think on it: A given system must have a degree of pattern and order in which to exist and persist, else it is a temporary anomaly that disappears as fast as it appears. It does not sustain because its very construct does not allow it to sustain (which if you are an anarchist and that is your thing, then good luck with that).

When we step back from the abyss of existential pondering, we can find that the aspects that assist a given system in longevity boil down to two key architectures:

  • Hierarchies
  • Specialization

Foibles with both considered, there is a reason that these two processes arise repeatedly and often appear together:

They work.

Look to any business of any size, any assemblage of governing parties, of any sport or club, of any village to metropolis (effectively any instance where more than one human is to be found) and you will find hierarchies and specialization staring back at you.

Unfortunately, while they are efficient at perpetuating a given system or process, they are also terribly good at producing silos.


Dealing with the Devil-in-the-Details

Fortunately for us, our fight here today is not on the reinvention of societal wheels or the dissection of the human condition (though, I am sure those will help eventually). Instead, it is to understand, identify, and mitigate silos and their daily effects upon us in the workplace.

For instance, take our scenario at the beginning of the post where our weekend is now held captive by the outstanding task due Monday morn. Oi vey.

We assume that:

  • We cannot time travel [yet]
  • The task cannot wait
  • We are up to the task
  • We will not delegate to someone else, or make it their problem
  • We clearly want to reduce these occurrences going forward


The Small, Easy Steps


1. Set expectation out of the gate. Do not over promise. Keep the lines of communication open – it is 2020, no excuses.

2. Pushback when necessary. It keeps everyone honest and respectful.

3. Clearly define roles. Is this in my wheelhouse? In my department? In my business?

4. Apply appropriate resources. How many hours? How many people?

5. Strictly adhere to schedules. Avoid a “drop everything” treatment of requests and projects.

6. Do not assume information. Trust, but verify.

7. If you are in over your head, ask for assistance. Limitations are not to be ashamed of.

8. Compromise is king. Check your ego at the door if you want to move forward without resentment.

9. Establish a paper trail (email, documents, etc.). Vocal agreements die in court; the written word persists.

10. Own up to mistakes. Do not blame other or deflect blame unduly. However, do not own all mistakes if they are all yours to take.


Bend, but Don’t Break

When applied consistently over time, these steps yield supreme dividends for you, your team members, your department and your company.

But do keep in mind: You are up against habit, routine, ego, history, human biology and the very fabric of the universe itself. There will be pushback, from the very least outside your team or department. Also be aware there may be pushback from within your team and department!

So, consider the options, opinions and concerns of those these steps might affect. Dialogue is always preferred to mandate, as history does not kindly remember iron-handed tyrants.

So, bend, but do not break!

Slowly roll into de-siloing efforts and bake them in over time. Get one or a handful of the steps down before mass adoption. Slowly evolve into the new roles rather than reinventing society overnight.

With persistence to the above, you will reduce the rate and effects of siloed operations.

Now, if you excuse me, I have a weekend to enjoy.

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