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5 Ways to Break Down Organizational Silos

How to overcome the silo mentality and encourage team collaboration

By Laura McPherson · December 11, 2018
organizational-silos primary img

Farm silos are designed to store large amounts of grain while keeping different materials completely separated. In business, organizational silos have the same effect: They prevent resources and information from being shared among departments and teams.

No company sets out with the intention of building organizational silos. But by becoming familiar with the warning signs and taking action quickly when they start to form, you can help your company keep information and resources flowing freely.

To an extent, silos are a natural outcome stemming from the nature of business. After all, it makes sense to cluster expertise in a classic departmental hierarchy divided by functional groups. Silos only become damaging when each department or team focuses on its core duties and functions to the exclusion of others. If collaboration is not promoted and encouraged, essential business functions can become fragmented.

Image of silos
Silos in agriculture function to store and separate. Business silos prevent collaboration and the flow of information and resources between departments.

How to Recognize Organizational Silo Warning Signs

Once you know what to look for, organizational silos aren't hard to spot. The cardinal warning sign of organizational silos is the silo mentality: a mindset wherein information or other business resources that would be beneficial to the organization more widely are "owned" or guarded by a given group.

If the marketing organizational chart for a company

Here are a few signals that the silo mentality is creeping into an organization:

  • Mid-to-senior level stakeholders are unaware of major initiatives being undertaken by other departments or groups. It sometimes makes sense for initiatives to have limited spread, but if participants are unaware of important activities, the silo mentality may be taking root.

  • Departments feel underprepared for hand-offs. Imagine the marketing department receives a request to develop content for a new product with a short deadline even though the product has been in development for some time. This may be a result of an information gap that results from silos in business.

  • Top-down communication is flowing freely, but bottom-up communication is limited or nonexistent. If few actionable suggestions are filtering up from levels below management, this is a warning that silos have taken root.

The above examples of the silo mentality all have the same root cause: Departments—or individual managers—are taking ownership of resources competitively, rather than sharing and collaborating. This can lead to anything from power struggles to launch delays to product recalls.

A culture of collaboration starts from the top—employees will mimic what they see in management, so it's crucial for executives and managers to model resource- and information-sharing.

How to Build and Maintain Silo-Busting Bridges

Early action against organizational silos is particularly necessary for start-ups and growing businesses. The larger the organization, the harder silos are to bust, so it's important to nip them in the bud as soon as—or even before—they start to form. The following strategies will help you break down silos and promote a collaborative cross-functional environment.

1. Help everyone understand the common vision and goals

A common vision and widespread understanding of company goals—and how each department supports them—can prevent the silo mentality from cropping up in the first place. In other words, individuals and teams must understand how they contribute to the big picture. And it's equally crucial for individuals to understand how other individuals and teams contribute as well. This encourages team members to think of departments as links in a chain, instead of as separated silos.

Understanding the roles of others and goals of the company at large is critical to avoiding organizational silos.

Transparent communication is a solid foundation for a healthy company culture. When everyone has their finger on the pulse of what's happening throughout the company, they're less likely to hoard resources or withhold information—intentionally or unintentionally.

BASF, one of the largest chemical companies in the world, advocates a one-company strategy based on transparency. The company calls its one-company principle and process Verbund, a German concept that roughly translates to "combined" or "cooperation." There are four arms to the Verbund principle: Production, Employee, Customer, and Technology. Through Verbund, these four arms are encouraged to network and interface with their core audiences and with each other. Verbund doesn't just look good in company documents; BASF attributes global operational annual savings totaling 1 billion Euros to its Verbund approach.

Keeping your organization's common goals and overall vision top-of-mind doesn't require daily all-hands meetings. You can use a business dashboard app like Dasheroo (free for up to eight insights) or Klipfolio (free for up to two users) to keep your company goals and metrics front and center for everyone to see. These tools allow you to display charts, graphs, and other visuals for an at-a-glance look at company-wide performance against goals.

On a more individualized level, human resources software like BambooHR (contact for pricing) allows you to display your org structure in various formats, including everything from a traditional org chart to a map of functional and cross-functional teams. Allowing your employees to see how everyone at the company fits into the puzzle will create more empathy and encourage collaboration and information-sharing.

Editor's note: At Zapier, we use Looker (contact for pricing) for our "Big Board," which broadcasts stats including annual recurring revenue (ARR), number of users, and seven-day churn percentage. These numbers help us remember that we're all working toward a common set of goals.

2. Assign cross-functional liaisons

Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of General Electric, instituted the GE Work-Out, which pulls those closest to a business issue into intensive work sessions. The GE Work-Out process encourages cooperation between departments and relies on neutral mediators and facilitators to do so. These are people who have no prior opinions or personal stake in the outcome of a given Work-Out session. In smaller companies, that may mean hiring a consultant with mediation experience, which can be a costly proposition.

But if organizational silos are targeted early, your business can likely use a more streamlined process by establishing interdepartmental liaisons. These liaisons are responsible for encouraging communication between multiple departments working on a project—likely in the form of monthly meetings. In these meetings, facilitated by the liaison, individuals from various departments will discuss progress, focusing on dependencies with other departments.

The transparency fostered in these meetings will lead to closer working relationships, which will ultimately encourage resource sharing, as compared to resource defending or hoarding.

Read our tips for automating calendar functions for ideas on how to optimize updates and reminders for your schedule.

3. Encourage cross-functional training

Specialization is a good thing. After all, you want each member of your team to be the best at what they do. At the same time, team members need to understand how their peers fit into the bigger picture. Otherwise, individuals themselves can become silos. One solution: cross-functional-training.

By training employees on skills and tasks that don't officially fall to them, they'll get a clearer picture of what exactly their colleagues are doing all day. That training will help individuals know when resources or information might be of help to other departments.

Cross-functional training also helps encourage career development by exposing employees to multiple functions within the enterprise. Employees can get a better sense for what other aspects of the company suit their skills and interests, and future leaders will gain a better understanding of overall business strategy.

In 2015, PwC's Global Operations Survey found that while 61 percent of companies believed that cross-functional collaboration was the solution to reaching strategic goals and 50 percent of companies recognized building excellence in cross-functional capabilities as an operations challenge, just 36 percent of companies prioritized cross-functional capabilities at the company level.

The Nestlé Group highlights the importance of ongoing training in its human resources policy. And Nestlé holds itself accountable for performance: Globally, in 2016, each employee completed an average of 38.8 training hours. How? Well, the U.S. division of Nestlé Purina's Management Trainee Program exposes new talent to all core functional areas beginning at hire. In addition, Nestlé Purina maintains a Rotational Development Program in which participants from the Branded Marketing, Marketing Development Organization, and Sales departments spend one year in each of these three areas cross-training and developing their skills in an accelerated learning environment.

Of course, training is resource-intensive. Learning management systems (LMS) like Lessonly (contact for pricing) and TalentLMS (free for up to five users and ten courses) will streamline the process by helping you create training modules for cross-functional groups. And once introductory courses are developed, those same courses can be used or expanded upon to help onboard future hires. As long as department heads ensure their training materials are kept up to date, there's no need to reinvent the wheel each time.

Once you've created your courses, you can even automate your training with Zapier's automated workflows. Automatically add users to a course or announce a new course to specific teams who need to complete it:

Assign new BambooHR employees a Lessonly lesson

Assign new BambooHR employees a Lessonly lesson
  • BambooHR logo
  • Lessonly logo
BambooHR + Lessonly

If you're considering adopting an LMS to help deliver online training to your employees, take a look at our picks for the 8 Best LMS Software Solutions.

4. Develop multi-functional teams for critical launches

While it may seem labor-intensive at first blush, organizing team members into multi-functional groups can actually streamline your launches.

A launch team will typically have at least one member or representative from each core department involved, such as engineering, product, marketing, sales, and customer service. Once again, developing interdepartmental relationships through close collaboration on such teams will deter the silo mentality. Team members will be able to see the crucial role each individual and group plays in a successful launch, making it less likely that resource- and information-guarding will occur.

Jabil, Inc. has been proactive about developing multi-functional teams to combat the silo effect. Jabil has over 170,000 employees and is one of the largest providers of outsourced electronics manufacturing services in the world. In 2015, Jabil's Chief Operating Officer William D. Muir Jr. told PwC:

More and more we're not thinking about our organization in discrete independent functional silos … Leveraging expertise from different areas of the company has certainly become more and more important for us in terms of our continued migration to be a solution provider.

To encourage continuous communication and collaboration throughout each launch, we suggest adopting a team chat app with a channel for each launch team. This will allow multi-functional teams to communicate instantly regardless of where they are in the building (or world). These apps also increase the signal-to-noise ratio by allowing team members to ping specific individuals or groups of individuals, while still maintaining transparency that could be lost via email. Plus, team chat apps are generally archivable, so that chats can be referenced company-wide as necessary in the future. Take a look at our picks for the 12 best team chat apps for ideas and information on which app might be a good fit for your organization.

5. Take advantage of the IKEA effect

The IKEA effect states that people who put creative effort into the beginning stages of a process will be more invested in it down the line. For that reason, it's helpful to get input from individuals across departments on every major project. That way, every team will have an emotional stake in the project, making them more likely to share resources to make it successful.

One way to do this is with mind mapping software, which allows individuals to synchronously or asynchronously contribute ideas to a project early in the collaboration process. If you use an integrated task management system (e.g., MindMeister > MeisterTask), you can even turn each idea into a task and add the contributor as a follower, so they're notified as progress is made on an idea they contributed to.

Each of your departments may be best in breed, but if they're not collaborating, you could be facing the specter of organizational silos. This situation can be disastrous for team productivity and damage the customer experience. The silo mentality and organizational silos have the potential to derail your success. But with early recognition and proactive handling, you can ensure that your organization maintains its structure without fragmenting your core processes.

Silos image by Doc Searls via Flickr. Centralized organizational chart image by David Armano via Flickr. Organizational chart image by Rawpixel.

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