Making Silos Work

Everybody hates organizational silos. They are a problem. They get in the way. They need to be “busted.” And to some extent, I agree. The way our different departments seem to erect walls separating them from each other can definitely cause problems. What one department does ends up producing a result that causes trouble for another department, either immediately or (more likely) down the road. Silos create people who say “but that’s not my job.” Silos reinforce the “we’ve always done it that way” syndrome.

But we tend to forget that there are very valid and important reasons for having silos. We all can’t be experts in everything. It’s not efficient, and as the complexity of our operation increases, it’s literally impossible. Our brains and attention spans aren’t that big. Our organizations need deep expertise available to them. For that, we really need our silos.

So how do we make this work? Well, unfortunately the answer is NOT to order the silos to cooperate. Or, better yet, force everyone to attend endless staff meetings where each department gives a boring report about everything they’re doing so we can all make sure we’re “on the same page.” I’m not anti-meeting, by the way. Information sharing is great. But that doesn’t solve the silo problem.

To solve the silo problem, you need to increase your capacity for systems thinking. The different parts of the system need to be able to see how what they are doing is causing in impact in another part of the system, even if it’s delayed or somewhat indirect. Interestingly, a great way to do this is to distract people.

Remember, silos are useful, but by their nature they generate “ruts.” They do the same thing over and over, because only people in the silo have the expertise to do it. So that’s a good thing. But this causes them to naturally draw in their focus onto their rut. That inhibits systems thinking. So we need to find ways to distract them enough, and in a strategic way, so they start to see the bigger picture and adjust their own rut to be more in synch with the rest of the system. Patrick Lencioni offers some ideas on how to do that in his book, Silos Politics and Turf Wars (affiliate link). He talks about creating a unifying and time-limited “rallying cry” for all departments to focus on.

We also talk about this in Humanize in Chapter 6: How to Be Open. Open organizations embrace systems thinking when they design their structure and processes.

Image credit.


  1. 14.10.2011 at 8:38 am

    Jamie- when I first began reading your post and you mentioned silos being acceptable, I put the brakes on. Silos = bad; but then I continued reading and I see your point. Silos do help foster expertise and systems thinking is essential.

    In my company (currently) social media is handled by one department but we ensure that the entire company is part of the conversation. Any knowledge gained is shared by capturing it (first) in our CMS. Then informal weekly “coffee” meetings occur where the knowledge can be elaborated on and discussed. These meetings are not mandatory (although everyone invited attends). They are less than twenty minutes and are an open discussion format not a traditional meeting one. (If the conversation requires more time, we continue it outside of the “coffee space” throughout the course of our day — in the hallways, on our employee online community, at lunch, etc.) It is not led by management and no one is “called on” to report on her department’s week. This exchange has become extremely valuable for us because not only is it a great way to share information but it has strengthened the personal relationships between teams as well.

    • 16.10.2011 at 9:25 am

      Awesome, Christina. I really like the decentralized nature of the process you’re describing. In Humanize, when we talk about creating “open” cultures we focus on embracing decentralization.

  2. 24.10.2011 at 12:14 pm

    You make a great point on silos and systems thinking. Part of the silos issue has to do with our association methods of accounting for income and expense. The allocations for income: sponsorships, advertising, inkind etc are usually connected to a specific activity. As communication channels become more social and blended to assist both members and our business partners to target their messages, this specificity bumps ways to consider sharing the income beyond one event. M

  3. […] Notter, vice president at Management Solutions Plus, recently blogged about how silos can be used constructively for growth. To capitalize on existing departmental silos, one must introduce systems […]

  4. […] Notter, vice president at Management Solutions Plus, recently blogged about how silos can be used constructively for growth. To capitalize on existing departmental silos, one must introduce systems […]