Escape from the silo: teaching your teams to share

Thursday, October 22, 2015 - 08:52

Guest post by Graham Winter 

The epithet ‘silo’ is used derisively in business to mean something narrow and inefficient, however a new style of adaptive leadership and teamwork is turning that on its head. We all know that the organisational silos are often caught with the smoking gun at the scene of many a corporate crime, but are they really guilty?

‘Of course they are’, was the blunt retort from a seasoned HR leader pointing towards three pieces of circumstantial evidence:

  1. Overruns on new initiatives that have blown out budgets and created heat between Executive leaders
  2. Falling net promoter scores that tell the frustrations of customers who sneer at the company’s ‘seamless service’ tag line
  3. Delays in getting new products to market that have given more nimble competitors space to grow in an over-crowded market

It certainly looks like the silos are guilty of blocking the agility and innovation that our new Prime Minster is calling for, but all is not what is seems. The team at the aptly named Australian consultancy, Think One Team have a different view of silos, and Executive Director Paul Lloyd highlights Westpac, Rio and Tatts Group as examples of organisations that are physically and geographically siloed; and yet they deliver very effectively as one team because they connect their silos.  

Tellingly, Lloyd shares awful stories of others who have invested heavily in initiatives to demolish the silos, only to be mired in the tell-tale signs of the silo problem that had the HR leader wringing her hands.

It’s about set up

The Think One Team research and experience reveals a set of five practices commonly found and reinforced within organisations that show the symptoms of silo behaviour.

Here are the five with one example in each of a root cause of that behaviour:

  1. pursuing separate business unit agendas because the ‘put-the-business-unit—first’ behaviour is reinforced and rewarded by KPIs and performance systems
  2. avoiding and denying problems because leaders create a culture where challenging the status quo is discouraged
  3. collaboration by ‘experts in silos’ because the power of technical experts outweighs the wisdom of co-creating with a diverse team
  4. prioritising in isolation because team building is done in functions only
  5. avoiding accountability because the lack of performance debriefing allows people to attribute the wins to ‘us’ and losses to ‘them’

As Paul Lloyd suggests, “When these five practices prevail, you can imagine why a change in organisation structure or a training course will do little to change the underlying dynamics.”

Outside in and nimble

In the volatile business world, the ‘thrivers’ embed capabilities and practices to be nimble and responsive to the outside world. Each of these practices is about sharing, not protecting, and they contrast to the five already described.

Share the Big Picture

The first practice is built on the realisation that you can’t connect business silos unless there is something bigger and more important than the individual agendas. For most, that’s the customer experience and an associated set of values that enable people to share a bigger picture than the business unit agendas of their siloed counterparts.

Share the Reality

Second is an adaptive and emotionally intelligent style of leadership that minimises the protective and defensive behaviours that stifle open challenging and feedback. In a volatile and disruptive world it is essential to create a culture where people share the reality, not avoid and deny.

Share the Air

Third is the sharing of ideas, opportunities and breakthroughs that rarely come from inside silos, but instead from people with diverse skills, styles and experiences.  New technologies are a brilliant way to add even more oxygen so that people really share the air.

Share the Load

Fourth is resource allocation, which means joint prioritising and a principle that Think One Team call ‘One person accountable, multiple people responsible’. This provides the authority to lead and the responsibility to engage with and support colleagues, and it’s a key to sharing the load across complex challenges.

Share the Wins and Losses

The fifth and final practice is about instilling a way to celebrate and learn. The open organisation instils an operating rhythm that encourages and supports people to debrief, learn and adapt together.

One team means connecting not demolishing

These five practices or ‘five shares’ form the framework for the Think One Team change leadership method, and they provide a model (shown in the diagram) that is very useful for team leaders to connect their teams across the traditional ‘divides’.

Think Silos

Think One Team

Pursue own agendas

Share the big picture

Avoid and deny

Share the reality

Stifle communication

Share the air

Protect your own turf

Share the load

Play I win you lose

Share the wins and losses

The five shares highlight that it’s not the silos that are guilty, but rather the leaders who keep their experts in silos to protect a way of working that is not sustainable in a complex and fast changing world.  

Graham Winter is an Australian psychologist and best-selling author of Think One Team, The 90 day plan that engages employees, connects silos and transforms