Connecting across silos

The silo effect

In 2020, most of us have had at least some experience of remote working. As our days have become organised around video meetings, it has uncovered the problematic structure of our organisations. Without the ebb and flow of informal conversations that we get in the office, our only interactions are with our formal teams. This can amplify a sense of isolation – we may feel disconnected from the broader work of the organisation, and the ideas and experiences of our colleagues.

But while remote working exaggerates this ‘silo’ effect, it’s worth remembering that this dynamic exists even when we’re all working in the same building. The people we tend to interact with most are those in our team, and while there are certainly many benefits of team-based structures, there are also limitations. The challenge for organisations is to balance the need for small teams that work efficiently and effectively, with the need for cross-team collaboration that generates ideas and reinforces a shared purpose.

A common goal

In his book Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, Patrick Lencioni warns that the destructive effects of silos – negative competition, working at cross-purposes – tend to emerge when there is no unifying purpose for the organisation. Without a clearly articulated set of goals or priorities to which all teams contribute, there is little incentive for cooperation.

This is where the role of leaders is crucial. It’s not so much that we need to create ‘flat’, leaderless structures, but rather that leaders need to focus on generating commitment to common goals, and creating space for the collaboration that needs to occur between teams in service of these goals.

The networked organisation

When we consider the issue of ‘silos’, we need to remember that team structures in themselves are not the problem. As Greg Satell writes, close-knit, high functioning teams are essential in organisations. Yet, what’s also important is the way that these teams are connected to each other; when the ‘pathways’ between teams are shorter, the organisation becomes more effectively ‘networked’. This not only supports innovation and streamlines operations, but also reinforces commitment to a shared goal.

While the ‘network’ metaphor has recently become popular as a way of describing organisational structures, it harks back to Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisations and his notion of the organisation as a ‘brain’. In ‘brain’-like organisations, learning becomes essential. The role of leaders is to instil processes and structures that help teams engage in both action and reflection: learning from past activities, adapting to change, and sharing their knowledge across the organisation.

Whether a ‘network’ or a ‘brain’, it’s clear that the quality of the connections between teams matters, and that leaders play an important role in uniting teams around a common purpose, by facilitating the interactions that lead to learning and innovation.