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What are silos and how to break them down

3 strategies to break down silos and build a more effective team

June 28, 2021

For organizations to operate effectively, teams need to talk. Without strong cross-team collaboration, work often gets duplicated, projects are slower to launch, teams compete for resources (instead of working together), and company-wide goals get missed because people simply aren’t working together to accomplish them.

Simply put: your team shouldn’t be operating in a bubble. And while that might sound obvious, it can be surprising how silos sneak up on you — you might not even notice they’re forming until the problem becomes too deeply ingrained.

Left unaddressed, silos in the workplace can have a lasting, negative impact on both the success of your business and overall employee engagement. According to Salesforce, 86% of execs cite lack of collaboration or ineffective communication as a major cause of failure in business. Another study from Queens University found that 39% of employees feel their teammates don’t collaborate enough.

In this article, we’ll go over how to know if silos are forming on your team and what you can do to prevent and solve for them.

What are silos?

You may be asking yourself: What’s a ‘silo’?

Let’s start by visualizing an actual silo — you know, those tall things that keep grain in (and everything else out) on a farm. Grain in one silo doesn’t ever mix with grain in the other silos, even though it may be on the same farm.

Silos in the workplace are pretty much the same thing. But instead of grain, you’ve got teammates. And instead of a farm, you’ve got a department or company. Silos at work mean teams operate in relative isolation to one another. There’s little effort made to collaborate or communicate, which leads to misaligned priorities, redundant or duplicative work, mistrust, power struggles, and a decrease in overall team effectiveness.

It can also be just plain frustrating. Like two sub-teams finding out they’ve both been working on the same landing pages for an upcoming product launch, scrambling to get to the finish line, only to realize someone else is doing the same work too. Had they been collaborating in the first place, they could have avoided the duplicative work and more effectively divided and conquered for the launch.

How do silos form on teams?

Silos aren’t just a communication problem, though communication can be a part of it. It’s also about how teams work. The modern workplace is networked, with cross-functional teams and nodes of collaboration. Silos happen when teams or orgs don’t update their ways of working to support (and fuel) this new cross-functional nature of work. As companies grow or organizations move to remote to hybrid work, teams have to work even harder to prevent silos from forming.

Here are some of the most common reasons silos happen in the workplace:

  1. Information-sharing isn’t prioritized: For departments to work most effectively, teams need to work together — not as separate units. But when different teams use different apps and tools for their workflow, and sharing isn’t prioritized as part of the org’s culture, it can feel like a heavy lift to bring folks into the fold. When orgs don’t show that information-sharing is a priority (and make it easy for folks to do), it can have a lasting impact on transparency. People don’t know who’s working on, what’s being prioritized, and why decisions are being made, which can create mistrust across teams, misaligned priorities, and duplicative streams of work.
  2. Communication and feedback loops are broken: You want your team to feel confident proactively sharing with others, but this requires a level of trust and openness that can be hard to achieve. When open communication and feedback isn’t part of your team’s fabric, folks might feel like they’re walking on eggshells when something isn’t working and continue operating that way despite problems. Without a solid feedback loop in place and a regular cadence where folks check in with each other, teams and individuals naturally start to operate in a bubble. Collaboration will naturally take a hit when folks aren’t connecting openly too.
  3. There aren’t pathways for folks to readily collaborate: Collaboration should come from the top down. If managers and leaders across your department aren’t seeking out opportunities to connect and work together, it’s unlikely that folks at the IC level will feel empowered to do the same.

Silo-check: If any of these following sound familiar, it might mean you have a problem with silos on your team.

“Who’s responsible for X?”

“When did that get decided?”

“Ugh! Just realized another sub-team is working on this too. 🤦”

“Is there a doc for that?”

“Did you know another team already did some research on this?”

“Just read the launch messaging doc. Are you sure we’re aligned on our target user?”

“I thought we owned that part of the product!”

“Wait, what’s going on?!?”

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How to break down silos (or stop them from forming in the first place)

Strengthening transparency, encouraging open communication, and creating more pathways for collaboration can help your team break down silos if they’ve already formed … or prevent them from happening in the first place.

Learn how to break down silos with Range

Strengthen transparency

Silos form when teams don’t know what each other are working on, so the first step to solving for them is clear project documentation and information-sharing.

  • Improve project visibility with cross-team check-ins: Regular status updates (like Check-ins) shared across teams and departments help everyone stay aligned, informed, and connected around projects that are in-flight. They help big teams and departments stay in sync (and sane), especially when there’s a lot going on. Projects get launched faster and orgs become more effective because everyone’s aligned on priorities, teams know who owns what, and folks can easily spot areas to collaborate to move work forward.

Tip: Work spread across multiple apps? Different sub-teams using different tools? Not a problem. Range connects with Asana, GitHub, Google Docs, and more so that sharing updates with other teams takes only a few minutes of everyone’s time. You can even add deep links back to project roadmaps and other supporting documentation to share context with everyone, even if they’re not on your direct team.

  • Standardize your project specs, and use them for every project: Project specs and one-pagers help teams create alignment and open the door for more collaboration, since everyone has context into what’s going on. Each one should include a timeline, project ownership (including a RACI chart), and details on the deliverable. It can be helpful to create a project spec template for your department to save time and ensure a standard set of information is included in each one. Not sure where to start? Check out our project spec template.
  • Make sharing updates a department-wide priority: Transparency is a full-team effort and you’ll want to get everyone on board for it to be most effective. To help encourage full participation, it’s best to set clear expectations and use tools that are easy to incorporate into your existing workflow. Over time, this will make cross-team sharing second nature.

Tip: Range Check-ins make team-wide adoption easier. You can set a schedule to keep everyone in-sync, use prompts so folks don’t have to think too hard about sharing, and organize everything by teams to keep track of work across the org more seamlessly. You can even connect Range to Slack to share and follow along with relevant updates in the place you’re already communicating with each other.

Encourage open communication

Proactive, open communication is key in helping prevent and break down silos. Investing in psychological safety can help you build a culture where folks feel more comfortable speaking up and sharing ideas that, in turn, will encourage more collaboration and sharing across teams.

  • Build trust and understanding across the department: You can help teammates feel more confident proactively sharing by building up trust and understanding across the team or department. To start, try starting your day or week with a lightweight check-in on how people are doing. (Our team uses emojis and colors to describe our mood each morning as part of our Check-in. It’s more approachable and helps people open up without having to share more than they’re comfortable with.) This practice strengthens psychological safety by showing everyone that it's OK to open up and be real with each other. Over time, it improves trust, communication, and can lead to greater innovation on your team too.

Tip: To encourage people to share emotions, start by modeling the behavior yourself for the rest of the team. If you’re having a hard day, say so. If you’re distracted by something outside of work, let them know. If an experiment you tried failed miserably, share that too. (Failure should be something folks feel safe talking about — not something they shy away from.)

  • Get to know folks outside your direct team with team-building questions: Asking (and answering) team questions on a regular basis can help your department build up a shared sense of memory, deepen understanding, and strengthen connections. We recommend using a mix of light-hearted questions that aren’t related to work and deeper ones that help folks learn about each other’s work styles. We put together an ebook full of questions to help you get started on this one.
  • Build feedback into the fabric of your team: Giving and receiving feedback helps individuals grow, and helps teams work more smoothly together. For cross-team collaboration, project or sprint retros can provide a space for folks to reflect, share feedback, and iterate for the coming cycle. When you hold a retro, be clear that these are safe spaces for learning and growth, and that blaming and finger-pointing are not only not welcome, they detract from the actual experience. For individual-level feedback, start by modeling the behavior yourself. Ask your reports or manager for feedback during your 1:1s. Encourage folks to solicit lightweight feedback throughout the quarter — it doesn’t have to only happen twice a year during your review cycle.

Create more pathways for collaboration

As a leader, show folks that collaboration is valued and should be prioritized.

  • Align on priorities by setting hierarchical objectives: Objectives help teams see how everything is connected. You can link objectives to KPIs and metrics, create a hierarchy to connect personal and team-level goals to those departmental OKRs, and define clear ownership for each. You can even import work from apps like JIRA, GitHub, and Asana to see progress on goals across tools and teams.
  • Surface and discover more ways to collaborate: A lot of times it’s not that folks don’t want to collaborate with other teams, it’s that they don’t know the opportunity to do so exists in the first place. Check-ins not only give valuable visibility into work across the department, they’re also a great place to spot opportunities for collaboration. Teams can use #tags, to follow along with relevant or interesting workstreams, even if they’re outside of their direct team. #Tags work especially well for tracking cross-functional projects or department-wide initiatives where many different teams are contributing. Encourage your team to carve out time to read and react to what folks are working on too – this will help uncover more opportunities for collaboration.

Most importantly, communicate

When it comes to breaking down silos, transparency, open communication, and collaboration are all important. But perhaps the most fundamental way to think about improving team or department-wide communication is to… you guessed it, communicate. Have open, honest conversations about what is and isn’t working. As a manager, frequently check in with your team for feedback — and give them multiple ways and channels to offer it. Check-in with your peers across other teams too. Model the behaviors you hope to see from your team and continuously iterate to make it work for you and your team.

Learn more ways to tackle silos and strengthen transparency on your team
What are silos and how to break them down
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