3 ways to blend, not bust, silos to get better results

by | Nov 8, 2015 | Blog | 2 comments

cocktail with umbrellaWhile growing up in our native Oklahoma, my siblings and I felt like outsiders.

We didn’t have any Indian blood, we weren’t related to Mickey Mantle, the baseball giant from Commerce, OK who seemed to be everyone’s cousin, and we didn’t eat Wonder Bread.

Now living in Charleston, SC, I feel like an outsider again, although for different reasons. My ancestors don’t include any prominent Southern families, I’ve never belonged to a sorority or the Junior League, and my husband and I have different last names.

Until reading the thought-provoking new book, The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers by Gillian Tett, columnist and U.S. managing editor at the Financial Times, and also a trained anthropologist, I just accepted my outsider status.

Now I recognize my outsider status provides me with a competitive advantage in overcoming the dangers of silos.

When your identity is tightly bound to one group—a “classification system” as the anthropologists call it—you can become excessively rigid and blind to other people and situations due to severe tunnel vision.

These classification systems—also referred to as “silos” within organizations—can create problems not only for individuals, but also for company departments and entire organizations.

In fact, Tett writes about the dangers that Sony, UBS, JP Morgan, GM, the Cleveland Clinic, BP and others faced when boundaries tightened or even calcified between functions in their organizations.

Many leaders recognize the problem, and regularly try to persuade employees to “bust” or “break” the silos in their organizations.

Yet, talking about smashing silos is a labor of Sisyphus. He’s the character from Greek mythology doomed to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, repeating this action for eternity.

Here’s why. Silos perform a valuable purpose in organizations. They make it easier and more efficient to bring together common interests and resources to perform specific tasks to achieve company objectives.

Plus, as I’ve learned in my applied neuroscience program, people gravitate toward “people like them” and enjoy spending spend time with people who share their background, interests and responsibilities.

The more prudent action is to blend, mix or stir silos up every now and then, rather than “break” or “bust them.” This avoids threatening people by trying to take them out of their comfort zone, especially if you’re using words that sound violent.

Leaders can even think of themselves as an organizational mixologist, which conjures up much more positive images. Imagine an IT/HR “adult beverage” stirred, not shaken, and poured into a fancy glass with a little colorful umbrella.

The benefits of mixing include combining established ingredients to create something new. In an organizational context, this can mean finding different perspectives, seeking new opportunities and innovating new ideas.

Since our national inclination is to be “mental couch potatoes” according to Dr. Matthew Lieberman, leaders need to help employees actually mix with one another.

Here are three relatively simple actions to take to encourage the spirit of curiosity that can lead to improved performance:

  1. Open the doors to your silo. Be inclusive. When you have department meetings, invite speakers from other areas, both internally and externally. Give them a speaking role, as well as request they stay for the entire meeting so they can listen and observe. For example, one of my clients recently did this, featuring internal speakers from other functions, a site leader from another company in the same industry, and me providing tips on how to be more brain-friendly in their approach to transformation.
  1. Visit other silos. Offer to meet with and speak to other departments; don’t wait for formal invitations. Volunteer yourself or your team members to serve on teams, including but not limited to cross-functional ones. Join a different lunch table at the company cafeteria. Find informal social situations where you meet and mingle with others. Mix up the news and information you consume. Being in a new or different physical or mental space can open up your thinking.
  1. Involve outsiders. Within your silo, find the differences among people and ask them to talk about how their situations and experiences have shaped them and now influence their perspective. “The differences” could include people who worked at a competitor, switched professions, lived in multiple countries, have different ethnic backgrounds, etc. Also, encourage insiders to assume different ways of thinking, such as taking an opposing points of view. For example, one of my clients has team members take turns playing the devil’s advocate role. These actions help stretch everyone’s thinking and actions.

When you have an insider/outsider perspective, you can see things differently, including noticing both opportunities and risks. You also can become a better listener, hearing new things or being able to interpret things with more discernment.

As a result, we’re better equipped to play and work well with others. By combining forces rather than competing against one another in our functional areas, we can get better at getting better.

How do you feel about being an organizational mixologist for silos?

2 Comments

  1. Jim Shaffer

    I think the suggestions for managing silos make sense and have seen improvements because of them. I prefer organizing around value streams because they are typically much more customer-focused.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Yes, organizing around value streams helps reduce the adverse effects of silos, but it’s not always practical for all functions and situations.

    Regardless of your organizational structure, you need to make a point to mix people and things up to mitigate against our bias to seek out “people like us.” Diversity gets us better results, as the research shows.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jim!

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