Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships. — Michael Jordan
A silo is something that divides us from others. It is a set of people that is disconnected from other parts of the organization.
A functioning organization has a purpose and a mission to achieve. When people – increasingly recognized as the lifeblood of an organization, more critical than physical resources, commercial assets, intellectual property and such — when people are divided, they lack a common focus and the intellectual, professional and personal empathy that allows them to act like a team.
Teams amplify strengths, minimize weaknesses and provide a richness of insight and competence impossible in isolation. Nancy Dixon, among others, has researched and noted that diversity improves problem solving capabilities. We also know that the richness of participatory communications is the best predictor of team effectiveness.
Silos prevent unity and alignment. They prevent good and valuable things from spreading. Things like values, learning, best practices, and a shared culture and sense of belonging. They prevent, in other words, the strength of the team from building. They erode trust, teamwork, consistency and diversity. They prevent us from achieving our organizational potential. Left alone, they divide and weaken an organization.
Silos are as unavoidable as they are unhelpful to the organization and its leadership in pursuit of whatever it pursues. We do not, however, need to resign ourselves to the splintering effect that silos can have. These divisions exist but can, when bridged, allow for the rapid learning, excitement and excellence that diversity brings. They develop micro-cultures. They develop divergent points of view. They develop unique capabilities. In other words, another word for silo is diversity — and diversity is proven to solve problems faster, as long as there is enough common ground to recognize the language and contributions of one another.
The problem is not that divisions exist, but that we currently get hit by the negative effects, and reap little of the positive potential. What we want is to minimize the negative effects, and maximize the potential of the things that make us different.
Any group of people can be divided according to any number of differences, but there are some that are nearly universal in business, and challenging to bridge.
- Geography — We know the people near us best. There was a time when most people who worked for a company worked in the same place together every day. When people work in different locations, none of the tacit familiarity of what people can see and hear, impressions and constant presence are there. Even if those offices do the same thing and exist within a few miles of one another, the lack of daily, even hourly contact of any kind results in a huge gap in familiarity.
- Specialty — the type of work people do. Engineering, service, financial, sales, research, etc. Expertise, jargon, mental models and more, are informed by the education and experience that is our specialty.
- Organizational structure — This usually defines your management, budgeting, incentive and communications environment. Are you in manufacturing or service? Consumer or enterprise? Field Marketing or Product Marketing? These elements have a very significant impact on people’s point of view.
- Rank — CxO or customer service rep? Management or front lines? Rank has a big impact on how people communicate, what they care about, if and how they interact.
- Seniority — the fresh college grad and the 20 year veteran have very different points of view.
- Personal, cultural and generational norms — Digital native, or old school? Formal or informal? English or Portuguese? Personal and cultural factors have a big impact impact key habits and views. These can effect how you expect to communicate, values, meaning.
These divisions effect our ability to understand one another and work together. They often mean we do not have a shared understanding of issues, of our mission or of how to get things done. Sometimes it’s rather worse than that. Here are some of the losses we suffer in silos:
- Awareness of one another — out of sight out of mind. It is easy to completely forget that we have peers in other offices or locations. They simply disappear from our world. I’ve heard some customers say that more than 50 percent of their workforce is “invisible.” How can we benefit from the work, insight or support of people we don’t even know about?
- Familiarity with one another — we may know of one another’s existence, but do we really know who’s there and what’s going on and why it matters? The opportunities or challenges out there?
- Alignment with — a shared goal and mission may be the defining characteristic of a modern organization. Strangers will tend to interpret these things differently and diverge over time.
- Attunement with — David Brooks, in his brilliant 2011 New York Times OpEd, defined four new skills for success. Among these was attunement, which he defined as “the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.” Attunement is a core requirement for useful collaboration and, of course for leadership. If you want to lead across silos, you must bridge this gap.
- Collaboration — our ability to work together on specific goals, to build on prior work, or to leverage existing expertise or resources of others.
Here’s the key challenge: how can we respect the power of differences, but avoid the pitfalls? Obviously there are several lifetimes of work embedded in that. But we know that workplace technology can help — if it's carefully designed and thoughtfully used. We already know that technology that goes against our natural instincts or is more than a minor shift in our habits is likely to be ignored.
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