The Joy of Silos

A quick search on the Net for ‘organisational silos’ generates an endless list of headlines such as:

  • Breaking down silos for customer experience
  • The silo mentality: how to break down the barriers
  • Six strategies for breaking down silos
  • How to fix workplace silos
  • Reasons to permanently remove your organisational silos”

The list goes on.

At the same time, my clients say things like:

  • “The two Divisions aren’t working together like I need them to. We have to get rid of these silos…”
  • “The left hand never seems to know what the right hand is doing around here. There’s too many silos…”
  • “The conflict seems to be growing between the groups because of our silo mentality”
  • They can’t sort out the problems themselves so things get escalated to me and I don’t have time to deal with that. I need help to break down these silos”

No surprises here, perhaps apart from the fact that we are still saying these things after who knows how many decades of effort to ‘fix’ silos. I suspect that people would have had very similar complaints soon after the dawn of bureaucracy and the large organisation, yet we keep repeating ourselves and keep seeking the solution.

Worse, most of my clients seem to spend most of their working life under a mind-numbing state of restructuring, that tiresome quest for the Nirvanas where structure lives but silos don’t.

Isn’t it time to acknowledge that the quest to restructure away or otherwise kill our silos is akin to the hunt for the unicorn? It’s probably time to give it a rest.

So if we admit defeat and stop trying to restructure our silos to extinction, what’s Plan B? I say it is time to embrace our silos; time to stop trying to kill them; time to stop fruitlessly redesigning them; time to stop using them as an excuse. It is time to learn to work across them effectively and make those silos hum.

This means we:

  • Cease the endless restructuring and work with what we’ve got.
  • Stop blaming the ‘silos’ for getting in the way
  • Stop blaming them – the other group – for being hard to work with or not ‘getting with the program’.

Instead, as organisations we:

  • Focus on building our relational capability and the skills we need to work with other humans;
  • Build our ability to work in complex situations, to think systemically across silos
  • Strengthen our collaborative muscles, which are a key to success regardless of the organisational structure.

And as individuals we switch the frame:

  • from competition across silos to collaboration
  • from mistrust to extending trust
  • from me to we
  • from telling to asking and listening.

These things are hard to do – perhaps harder than calling in an expert to lead a restructure process – but might it be that the hard road is the one that offers a road to improvement?

Perhaps it is time to love our silos.


When and why we trust

Are we naïve to believe other people?  Should we take them at their word?  When do you trust others and when don’t you?  Are there any rules about this or any guidance about when you should or when it’s silly or naïve to do so? Being able to trust others is so important to effective collaboration that I’m keen to better understand existing research and other people’s experiences.

I want to know how to support collaborators to work on this aspect of their relationships.

Trust, or more often the lack of it, seems to be a topic of current interest today.  In Australia we’ve recently had several very public Royal Commissions ... into banking and financial institutions ... into institutional responses to child sexual abuse ... into aged care. The evidence presented and the stories from people who have suffered as a result of failures in these institutions have had an impact on levels of societal trust in organisations and their leaders. I’ve been wondering whether this has implications for why, when and how we decide to trust, or not, people we don’t know or people we don’t agree with.

Recently the ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster, dedicated its regular Monday night program, Q and A, to the topic of trust. A panel including 3 politicians, a board member of a bank and the CEO of an NGO addressed the issue of “Who do you trust? How have we lost it, how could we regain it, and how can we reinstate integrity and truth?”  They addressed the issues by answering questions from the audience and from the facilitator, Hamish McDonald.

I found the conversations more interesting than I thought I would.  There seemed to be agreement across the panel and from the audience about what we can do in our personal and public lives to build more trustful relationships.

Behaviour suggested by the panellists that is likely to encourage others to trust us, our leaders or our fellow collaborators included:

  • Being able to say things like:
    • “I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that question, I need help to find one.”
    • “Sorry, I got it wrong in the past, but evidence and information I’ve been presented with since has changed my mind.”
  • Being better at the art of listening with an open mind. Wanting to hear what people with different views have to say, and what evidence they have to support those views.
  • Reframing our own positions and interests in less confrontational ways that don’t seek to be ‘right’ which makes others ‘wrong’. Providing evidence and reasons for our views.
  • Working more actively to decipher and understand new information.
  • Opening up to new encounters and different conversations.
  • Asking questions that both acknowledge the expertise of others and seek to understand them.

I was surprised by the nature of this national conversation and the ideas generated from the panel. Their thoughts about integrity and truth, as well as about the issue of trust lost and how to regain it, matched my thinking. My experience is that people working in complex situations who are able to say that they don’t know things, that they don’t have answers, that they can change their minds when they learn new things, that they can be authentic, vulnerable and human, do encourage us to trust them. If we display the same behaviours, perhaps we, in our turn, will be trusted as we work together to find innovative solutions.