Written by Alex Moyle

When businesses first start out they are united against the world.  Collaboration comes from necessity. Yet as organisations grow roles are divided, teams specialise and more attention is focused on the internal workings of the company. This internal focus can cause conflicts and rivalries and fuel the creation of silos as teams compete to outperform other departments and win the CEO’s attention. Before long companies can end up with teams whose primary focus is to please internal stakeholders rather than serve customer needs.

On top of rivalry between teams. Silos can also exist within teams. Inter-team rivalry within a sales team can be a key driver of motivation. When teams are more concerned with beating each other than serving customer needs or beating the competition the consequences can be disastrous. This scenario is not limited to companies. General Stanley McChrystal in his book Team of Teams talks about how even within the military different parts of the armed services were often more concerned with beating each other than Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Leaders can mandate collaboration between teams – but shouldn’t be surprised when things return to normal just as soon as their backs are turned. Rather the key to breaking down silos is to make people want to collaborate outside of their silo rather than simply mandate it. So how do you build a collaborative desire?

Common Goal:

Creating a common externally facing goal is key to breaking down silos. A common goal acts as a reference point to point everyone towards and provides purpose to both internal and externally facing activities. In the event of uncollaborative behaviour, leaders can reference the goal and ask “how does that help us all get to our goal?” By referencing the negative behaviour against a shared goal, Leaders can highlight how the team’s behaviour is impacting their performance as a whole.

Lead from the front:

How often have you heard your own manager dismissing the effectiveness of another team in the organisation? When leaders criticise other teams they effectively authorise everyone to do the same, thus amplifying divisions between teams.

In the event of two silos clashing, the two leaders stride into an arena as their teams champion ready to do battle. Companies looking to break down silos need to engage the leadership team as the vanguard of changing the culture. When team members see their managers working to make relationships work with another department then an example is set for everyone to follow.

In short stop trash talking other teams. “But Alex what if they are bad at what they do?” I hear you say. Although this may be easier said than done. The goal is to work to make the relationship work rather than be destructive from the sidelines.

Build Familiarity:

It is much harder to be uncollaborative to someone you know and respect. But many organisations that rely on inter-departmental collaboration do little to encourage interpersonal relationships across teams. The most successful organisations are proactive in facilitating interdepartmental relationships. This could be job rotation every 18 months which happens in companies such as Intel or P&G. Regular job shadowing promoted by companies like OVO, or in the case of Honda where every employee spends time each year on the production line. Companies like Pixar, Google and Facebook all have interdepartmental “Brain Trusts” that foster idea sharing and collaboration.

Importantly you don’t need to be a big company to make this work for you. Can you get your credit controller to sit with the sales team for the day? Could someone from operations attend sales meetings with the sales team? The key is that where you have a silo, encourage relationships between the individuals of either side of the silo.

Give to Get:

Somewhere it is written that “if you give you shall receive”. But when a call for increased collaboration comes from the CEO, how many people cross their arms and think: “I am not going to help them until they help me.” In this situation the status quo wins.

Fostering an attitude where teams seek to help other teams before they receive is hard but achievable. McChrystal in Team of Teams describes how his team would sometimes ‘give’ to another team for 9 to 12 months before getting anything in return.

But what to give? Knowledge is the thing that silos crave most and guard as if it was gold itself. By being open with your knowledge, whether it be market information, organisational insights, you will attract others to your cause. In turn those you have shared with will share their knowledge with you. You may always feel that you have given more than you receive – but believe me over time things will level themselves out and your business will definitely benefit as a result.

Celebrate Success:

Last and not least make sure that even little successes are celebrated. The process of deconstructing silos is slow work, undertaken brick by brick and can feel like an endless challenge. So the key to motivating teams to continue with a process that is seemingly thankless is to recognise the little victories in perpetuity.

Improve not Remove:

Silos exist because there is a belief that groups working together in one location, or within one discipline are more efficient than there being no structure at all. In that sense ‘silos’ are not necessarily a bad thing – but a way of creating a strong team.  But how those teams operate and impact other departments determines whether the silo is good or bad. Done right silos can drive operational efficiency within teams and across the organisation.  So rather than think about removing silos, focus instead on removing the bad habits which negatively impact its efficiency and ultimately harm the wider organisation.   When approached in this way, it becomes easier for managers to focus on individual and team behaviours and avoid getting caught up with organisational structure.

Alex Moyle is a business development, sales expert and author of Business Development Culture – taking sales culture beyond the sales team, published by Kogan Page and available on Amazon. Find out more: https://alexmoyle.co.uk/

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