I can’t remember the last time a consulting client of mine did not worry about the silos that exist within their organisation. Silos are everywhere, and silo mentality is everywhere. But why?
Is it that people are selfish and narrow-minded? I am not convinced that the explanation is so simple: this surely is not the main cause of siloism.
What I have seen over the years is that a big challenge to silo-busting is conflicting priorities. What is urgent and important for one department or function or level is less so for another: my programme may not immediately or obviously benefit from collaboration with yours; and what preoccupies head-office folk is different from what their colleagues in the field focus on.
If I am a researcher don’t bother me with helping the fund-raisers; if I am a salesman leave me out of supporting those who collect debts.
Disconnects also exist between boards and senior management, and between them and middle level ones. Mistrust and alienation thrive between front-office functions and back-office ones, between sales people and technical ones. It goes on and on.
As everyone gets busier, thanks to the tyranny of the e-mail and other pressures of the 21st century, and as more organisations expect to be able to do more with less, it is not surprising that people get locked in to their immediate targets, never mind that their performance may well be assessed largely on these narrowly defined focus areas.
Little wonder therefore that reaching beyond their domain may stretch and stress them to breaking point.
This is as true in the public as in the private sector, whether for-profit or otherwise. While Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time available) still applies in some environments, in most we see that it is hours worked and productivity that must expand to handle shrinking resource availability.
But it is equally true that the whole should be greater than the sum of the individual parts, and unless there is collaboration and hence synergy, much talent and energy will be at best under-ultilised and at worst wasted.
The challenge is to identify areas where collaboration will indeed bring about synergy — and learning — with the achievement of such benefits motivating those involved to keep at it.
Except with those for whom sharing will always remain an unwelcome disturbance. For some people prefer and expect that they will only have to focus on one long continuous task at a time.
And indeed where their activity allows for such solitary performance they should be left to be at their best in such a manner.
To build a culture of purposeful collaboration, those who manage to make the time for it must be recognised and rewarded. And those who find it hard must be helped to expand their comfort zones so as to accommodate it when it is needed.
We all must allocate our time between the urgent and the important, between short term issues and longer term ones.
However very few organisations create space for the important but not urgent: for strategic thinking, reflection and innovation — much of which can only thrive through collaboration.
The way I and my colleagues help organisations enhance such useful collaboration is by getting the various units involved to exchange offers and requests with one another, providing them the opportunity to align their energy by indulging in give-and-take negotiation.
Not surprisingly, there is considerable literature on what causes silo thinking and how to counteract it. A recent example is the book Smart Collaboration by Heidi Gardner, recently published by the Harvard Business Review Press.
She quotes research that shows teams are more productive than individuals — even among such folk as lawyers and scientists, often thought of as naturally solo performers.
Teams are also better at coming up with high impact innovations, and again even in fields such as engineering and social science, which also have a reputation for individual geniuses making spectacular breakthroughs.
No matter who or where, an underlying requirement for collaboration is trust. So get going with working alongside others, do so generously and see others trusting you and offering you their support in turn.