Within your company, there are departments. The people in these departments all report to a department manager, who is responsible for making sure the department is functioning. These department managers report to lower-level senior managers, who oversee several different departments. These small-s senior managers then turn around and report to Vice Presidents or Executive Managers. It makes for an organizational chart that looks something like this:
There are advantages to this kind of structure. It’s clean. It’s simple. It’s easy to understand. It breaks out parts of a process into pieces for accountability and evaluation.
And it also fosters the development of Information Silos.
The problem is that it is natural for employees and managers within a certain operational area to develop what Neil Smith refers to as Tower Vision: Because you are used to working within a single silo, you spend your time looking to optimize within that same silo. You look up and down your own tower, rather than across the organization into other towers.
You can optimize your own silo tower for years and have your own processes down to a science. It’s natural for people to work within their own sandbox, since that’s what they are being held accountable for within the organizational structure. But optimizing your own silo tower processes will not lead to better organizational performance.
- The lack of cross-flowing information makes it impossible to operate the company with any kind of systemic thinking or unified vision.
- Informational silos are the antithesis of both organizational agility and process improvement.
- If you want to find a way to truly kill the morale of your employees and create a toxic company culture, create informational silos.
But none of this is news to anyone who has ever attended Management School or a Leadership Seminar. So why read yet another blog post about it?
Because you are a business leader (or aspiring business leader) who wants to know how to fix these problems once and for all, rather than simply treat the symptoms. And because of that I need to tell you something that weaker business leaders do not like to hear:
If you have informational silos within your organization, the fault lies with you.
Brent Gleeson summed up this truth perfectly in a 2013 article from Forbes:
Many executives may look at their organization and dismiss department inefficiencies and lack of cross-functional solutions with immature employees, lack of basic training, or simply the inability for some employees to play nicely with one another. Unfortunately, while these behaviors may be a result of the silo mentality; it is not the root cause…
Most employees become frustrated with their department and the organization as a whole when they have identified the problems, but can’t do anything about it. It is the responsibility of the leadership team to recognize this and rise above to create effective, long-term solutions that are scalable, executable, and realistic.*
–The Silo Mentality: How to Break Down the Barriers by Brent Gleeson
* Emphasis mine
I have written about the frustration from the employee side that comes with the inability to achieve process improvements in prior posts. There is a limit to the amount of time employees who are focused on business process improvements will try to make those changes within an organization that does not support those change efforts. Eventually, employees become demoralized. They quit taking the initiative of offering their observations to improve the organization. They become the disengaged zombies who simply do their job from 8-5. They become the death of the organization.
What can a business leader (or aspiring business leader) do to help fix this?
- Stop Being a Lazy Leader – It’s easy to simply lead according to the information silos, letting communication and accountability simply roll down the silo tower. You as a leader need to take the initiative and enable communication and collaboration across the silos. Whenever you have an idea, immediately find ways to make it collaborative.
- Support Collaboration Initiative with Accountability – Once you have made it clear that you want communication and solutions to involve multiple teams across different silos, you have to follow that up with accountability. Set measurable targets to encourage cross-silo communication. If you have employees who fail to meet these targets, even if those employees are senior level managers, you must hold them accountable for missing those targets.
- This also means holding yourself accountable for targets that are missed.
- Provide Tools to Help Information Escape the Silo – No more random information scattered to shared locations on a network. Information and data need to be centralized in a location where everyone can have access to it. Two important notes here:
- This doesn’t have to apply to all information. If you are operating according to data security best practices by employing the Principle of Least Privilege for certain types of information, this information can still be segregated out as necessary.
- Do not mistake the tools for the solution. The tools are a vital part of the solution, but they are not the solution. Without a hammer you cannot build a tree house, but the tree house and the hammer are not the same thing.
- Seek Out and Encourage Idea Generation – Some of the best ideas for your organization won’t respect your Org Chart. They may come from your front line employees. As a leader, you have to ensure that it is safe for these ideas to be proposed, and encourage these ideas to be shared even if it will step on the toes of others.
- Never Forget the Power of Framing – In Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, Duhigg presents the story of Paul O’Neill, the CEO of Alcoa. O’Neill was able to turn the company around in part by leveraging the benefits from an initiative to improve safety within the workplace. Improving safety meant examining organizational practices in ways that employees and leaders had been unwilling to do in the past. Not only did safety improve, but so did organizational operations and Alcoa’s competitive position within the marketplace.