Trends come and go in business. You might hear one person say in a meeting, “It’s all about stories.” And then all of a sudden every article in business journals and blogs are about stories. Breaking silos is a particularly fashionable phrase current.
Silos dot the countryside in much of the US. These tall structures which store grain are all about use and little loveliness. On farms, silos are vital structures, their utility is apparent in their form. They are functional. Their usefulness has made them ubiquitous. And, their need has not changed much. In other words, farmers had silos to hold grain, and they continue to use them to store grain.
In terms of organizational structures, silos be an apt metaphor. Just as silos contain a single type of grain, organizations develop departments based on functional capacity. In some way, organizational silos can be positive. Likeminded people have a short-form type of connection that can foster deeper connections and increased productivity.
Think of a moment when you are trying to figure out a problem at work, one that has made you pull at your hair. In that moment, you turn to a colleague who works in a totally different field. You spend so much energy trying to explain the problem, only for them to suggest an inane fix. Then you call someone who does what you do. In one sec, without giving you chance to waste breath on an explanation, they offer the right fix. They get it! You sigh relief and move onto the new task. Silos are good at helping you do what you are doing right now better.
But, why are articles allows agitating for the takedown of such vertical hierarchies? The silo doesn’t need a takedown; it’s the leaders.
Silos only work if people make purposeful bridges out of the structure. Farm silos have only one point where grains can be removed. Many workplaces take this metaphor seriously, allowing ideas to move in and out of the structure through a single upper-level person. Often, this plan is a result of a lack of trust in colleagues. The result is that information, access, credit, and goodwill stagnate at the top level of the silo, with the bottom of the hierarchy groaning under the weight. The bottom of any workplace hierarchy is usually doing a huge amount of important work.
What is the solution?
- Make the silo strong: Foster interpersonal relationships in the silo, so that they feel like a cohesive group
- Create ways for information to flow freely throughout the silo: Don’t make the silo feel like it will crush the lowest-level staff. Share information throughout the group. Don’t hoard credit at the top levels.
- Make the silo porous: Develop bridges at every level and in-between levels between silos in your organization. Develop processes that encourage staff to create personal ladders between silos.