Building bridges to overcome organizational silos

Why busting silos might not be the best approach to getting your teams well-aligned

Michael Boykin,Yellow Squiggle
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Ever been on a team that’s extremely insulated even though there were opportunities to connect with others within the larger organization? An insulated, siloed team is focused on immediate issues, often missing out on opportunities to collaborate and connect with others in the same organization.

The concept of silos in business has been around for a long time, and that’s because they continue to be problematic. Silos can form at any company, regardless of its size or structure. Companies with complex hierarchies or a matrix organizational structure (where employees have a functional manager and a product lead or manager) are especially susceptible.

Silos can exist between departments or within them, eventually becoming a defining component of your company’s culture. This stops the flow of knowledge and information between cross-functional teams, prevents the right decisions from being made, and ultimately stands in the way of everyone’s success.

A lot of advice out there says to bust down silos. But we’re not sure this is a realistic approach. Our take on how to overcome the challenges presented by silos is that sometimes you must build bridges between them, not bust them. Here’s why.

How to spot the signs and symptoms of silos

On small teams, it’s common to see people straddling membership in multiple departments. For example, a content writer might work on a copywriting project for the marketing team, and then turn around and write support docs for the customer service team.

As teams grow, roles are likely to get much more specialized. That content writer now works exclusively for the marketing team. As a result of these specializations, you might notice a decrease in the amount of exchange of information and context.

Here are a few signs that silos are beginning to form within your company:

  • Teams begin to blame each other — Teams take to tossing blame rather than working together to resolve tensions and problems.
  • The same work is being done by different teams — You start seeing duplication of effort caused by a lack of communication. When silos are particularly bad, teams actually hoard information and even refuse to share it.
  • Leaders and managers have different priorities — You see disagreement on priorities amongst teams and leadership.
  • Unhealthy competitiveness takes over — Teams start competing with each other to establish themselves as the best or most important and not to improve company performance.

Silos have a significant impact on your teams, and they can cause long-term damage to the culture of your company. Silos fragment companies and tarnish trust which takes time to rebuild. All of this stunts productivity!

But silos aren’t the demons they’re made out to be

Despite the negative connotation of silos in today’s business world, specialized teams are a good way to structure a business. These teams provide accountability and focus. Plus, this specialization ensures that the best possible people are tackling the right tasks, which leads to greater efficiency and productivity.

Additionally, a siloed team can move in the same direction in a much more nimble way than a large team, and when siloed teams work together, magic happens. For example, if a company OKR is to improve customer experience, marketing knows to focus more time on customer enablement content, product increases face time with customers, and engineering might shift more time to development of customer feature requests

That’s why you need to build bridges across silos, rather than work to bust them down.

How to build bridges across silos

1. Craft a vision and goals that unite everyone

Silos often form because people are working on different goals with nothing that connects one department's effort and output to another. In the worst situations, these goals might even compete against each other. That’s why, in order to build bridges, you need to bring the goals up a level higher. By crafting a clear vision and goals, you’ll ensure that your teams are driving towards the same end.

2. Establish a cross-functional team

Without an understanding of how other teams are functioning and dealing with situations, lots of tensions can form. This is why coordination and information exchange is so important. But rather than expect your teams to communicate all by themselves, you should build a cross-functional team whose primary job is to carry information across silos. In the best case scenario, this team has its own reporting structure, so they are not biased towards any one team.

3. Make problem-solving a collaborative effort

Great ideas can come from anywhere, and new perspectives are super helpful. Sure, it’s likely only an engineer who can write the code to make a new product feature work, but the idea for that feature can come from any function. Even so, siloed teams tend to work on their own without asking other teams for help. Remember that solving challenging problems brings people and teams together, and it builds the connections necessary to improve teamwork and collaboration.

4. Overcome the “Us vs. Them” mentality

In order to build bridges across silos, your team has to overcome the “Us vs. Them” mentality that grows and poisons organizations. One way to do this is to build trust at the top of the organization so that it begins to permeate throughout the various departments. That’s because when leaders start trusting one another, their teams will start trusting one another, as well.

Silos exist, so do the hard work to build bridges

You have to shift your mindset if you want to bridge silos. It’s about coordination (information and task sharing) and cooperation (getting people to actually work together in a meaningful way).

If you can’t begin to understand why silos have formed in your organization and how you’re going to connect them, it will be easy for a competitor to get a leg up on you. Without building bridges, you’re likely to have teams hoarding valuable information—consciously or unconsciously—and performing redundant work. Failing to build bridges between silos not only slows progress and decreases company-wide productivity, but it also makes informed decision-making an unnecessarily difficult or impossible task.

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Building bridges to overcome organizational silos
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