Subvert those silos

Anyone who belongs to an organisation knows that building silos is a human habit. A silo is a contained, protected area. Originally a term for agricultural towers that store grain, during the Cold War of the last century it came to denote the underground tubes that housed intercontinental ballistic missiles – the weapons of Armageddon.

In organisational dynamics a silo denotes a department, division, sub-office or team that someone has decided needs protecting. That someone is rarely a leader. More likely a middle manager or, in many cases, a group of employees. By their actions and language they make it hard for outsiders to become involved in what they do. They use jargon to make their daily work harder for others to understand and to make themselves appear distinctive and perhaps more professional.

This protective urge goes back to the very early days of human existence where the survival of social units permits almost any behaviour towards outsiders. It is the negative aspect of team spirit or ethos and it develops whenever it is given space to do so.

As a modern business leader, you should be sensitive to silo behaviour and take steps to prevent it becoming a permanently divisive feature of your business that impacts commercial performance. Some years ago I worked on the culture of an East African tech company. From the outside it appeared to be as modern as the machines it sold, and as clever as the software it marketed. But inside, it’s half century of history had created a dark, combative environment. One where divisions refused to share customer or prospect information with one another, so that they kept control of defined commercial opportunities. Regardless of the fact that sharing might have led to bigger opportunities for the whole company.

Other features of this culture were even less pleasant. Open animosity between division heads led to staff being forbidden to talk to colleagues outside their silo. Resistance to change meant that many discriminatory practises were perpetuated. Women weren’t particularly safe in the workplace. Old heads suppressed young spirits. Tribalism walked the open plan office and managers made bad talent choices. As in the Cold War, these silos can be hard to find and even harder to take down. Conventional attacks – leaders mandating change or management consultants carrying out short term interventions – just bounce off. The only way to truly take silos down is from within. By using young employees who are interested in change and untainted by the past. Giving them permission to question the way things are done and coaching them to create new alternatives.