This post has been contributed by William A. Schiemann, CEO, Metrus Institute. If you’d like to be a contributor, please contact us.

My Silo or Yours! by William Schiemann and @HRTMExec

Have you ever worked in an organization in which different departments or divisions didn’t begin to build silos?   Most likely not.  Let’s explore the root causes of such silos and ideas for breaking them down.

In a recent anthology of human capital leaders that I edited with Dave Ulrich and Libby Sartain, alignment is a frequent theme.  Why? Alignment is one of the key ingredients to organizational success because it drives focus.  It’s important that employees at all levels understand and be aligned with the vision, mission, values, and strategy of the enterprise to achieve unity of purpose.  More importantly, Metrus Institute has shown that high levels of alignment are correlated with financial and operational success, as well as being a key contributor to customer satisfaction and employee retention.

One of the important requirements of strong alignment is having teams in different departments working synchronously with one another.  And yet, as any of us who have worked in organizations know, this is easier said than done.  In the focus groups and interviews that we frequently conduct in organizations, cross fighting is ubiquitous.  As soon as we create structures in an organization to specialize work, groups begin squabbling across boundaries.  Why is that?

One cause is goal setting.  When groups are formed, it is not uncommon for them to have unique sub-goals that lead to priorities that are in conflict with other groups.  Second, when structures are first imposed, individuals begin to coalesce as a team—forming, norming, storming—often storming against their neighbors over budgets and organizational attention and praise.  Such fights over scarce resources and recognition inevitably bring out the worst behaviors—hoarding information, blaming before getting blamed, and optimizing their areas of responsibility without regard to the overall impact.

So conflicting goals and priorities, resources, recognition, pride, and self-preservation are often at the root.  What can be done?

Here are a few ideas that have helped organizations.

  • Keep communicating the big picture, including the larger goals of the organization.  Teams often lose sight of the journey’s final destination and need to be reminded frequently of the overall mission.

  • Go big on organizational-wide values.  If you want cooperation, you have to state it, talk about it, live it, and reinforce it.

  • Visibly endorse cooperative behaviors and extinguish unproductive competition QUICKLY.  While some organizations have intentionally set up competitive sales or innovation teams, competition between finance and HR or between marketing and sales is not healthy—they should all stay focused on the goal to beat the outside competition.  It is important to extinguish those unproductive behaviors the minute they become visible.

  • Never allow managers to build empires—NEVER!  In our survey work, using a model that measures alignment, we can quickly identify managers who are hoarding information, demanding loyalty to the manager at the expense of the organization, and insulating their people from other areas of the organization.  Survey questions should be used to identify emerging silos that soon will be misaligned with their peers and the organization as a whole.

  • Create holistic measures that span functional silos and special interests. These help people remain focused on larger organizational goals.  For example, a “time-to-hire” measure might be used to hold recruiters accountable, but if they bring in talent that quickly departs, what value does that create?  The organization needs to have broader measures of IMPACT on customers and performance.

  • Attach rewards to the greater success of the organization.  One group cannot succeed while others fail.  Such sub-optimization will allow some groups to feel that while they are highly successful, others have dropped the ball.  This type of reward structure inhibits the “helping behaviors” that are so important to alignment.  Fostering an environment in which groups pitch in to help each other ensures success for everyone.

  • Sit in my seat.  Another strategy to the inevitable silos is to cross-train and employ cross-assignments.  Living in another group’s shoes is one way to increase understanding and trust.

  • Play on the same team.  One strategy that has helped a number of organizations is to integrate different teams on periodic initiatives.  Partnering on a common goal not only pulls different groups together, but also creates a far deeper understanding of motivations, competencies, and good will.

  • Don’t keep structures in place for too long.   In today’s rapidly changing world, organizations need to be agile and static structures are not amenable to that.  However, it needs to be recognized that when groups change, they need time to reestablish themselves as high-performing teams.

Good luck! Nothing can be more helpful for improving alignment than breaking up a few silos.


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