Voices from the Front: On Silos

Jan 24, 2019

By AMA Staff

In one of the literal definitions of the word, a silo is a structure used to store and launch missiles. That definition can also apply to the term as it’s used to describe the organizational structures that act as barriers between departments, since the potential results can be just as explosive and destructive as a missile. In this month’s edition of Voices from the Front, Leader’s Edge asked a panel composed of members of the AMA community to discuss how silos affect their organization, how they deal with them, and what organizations can do to break silos down. Our participants were Ted, the leader of a sales team at a major pharmaceutical company; Deborah, an IT specialist who also works for a pharmaceutical; and Sheri, a project manager at a large financial services provider.

The discussion was moderated by the editorial staff of Leader’s Edge and Wendy Kaufman, president of consultancy Balancing Life’s Issues, Inc., and an instructor for AMA.

Question: Are silos a problem in your organization? How do you deal with them?

Sheri: There are silos throughout my entire organization. For instance, we’ll have a project and we’ll have a production fix that needs to occur. I’ll be working with a director who’s in charge of planning and implementation and I’ll send that person everything that’s needed to actually work with the systems, but the director decides not to do anything about it. Then he comes back to me and says, “Can you share that information with me?” I overcome silos by giving the person two tries, and if I’m not going anywhere, I take it to the next level. I feel like I should not be spending my energy on stuff like that. I should be focusing on my people and my customers, because everything that we do as an organization is centered on the customer. It’s not about me, it’s not about you: it’s about the customer.

Deborah: I’ve found that it’s all about relationships. If you have to reach out to a particular area’s manager, sometimes what you need to do is sit down and have a one-on-one and try to break down the barriers. What I’ve found is that if you can meet with the individuals or at least one of the decision makers in that area in some deescalated setting, like at a lunch, and become more engaged with them, I find it easier to not only understand their side, but for them to start to understand yours. It takes a little longer, but over time you’ll find it makes it a little easier to break those walls down.

Ted: I don’t see the silos so much at the company where I’m at now, but the company I was at before silos were a big problem. You find allies and you get the job done. As a salesperson, that’s who I am. I would avoid going to the person I was reporting to because I don’t think that showed my resourcefulness as a sales rep. You have to find resources to get it done.

You have to address it head-on. You can’t sweep it under the rug; the same thing will keep happening. As the leader of a sales team, I’m out in the field, and the worst problem is sometimes I don’t know what’s happening. If a rep isn’t getting something he needs, a lot of times I’m the last to know because the rep is not bringing it to my attention.

Q: What can organizations do to break down silos?

Sheri: There are things organizations can do, but I don’t know how far they’ll take it. My company has been in existence for over 85 years, so you have a lot of people who’ve been there a long time and have their own mindset, and you’re not going to change that.

Deborah: In our organization, it’s been an ongoing problem, because we can be very brand siloed. There are pros and cons to that. On the plus side, it gives marketing the creativity to build its brand and its strategy that the sales team then executes. The con with that is that often it just goes and does whatever it wants, with whomever it wants. Unfortunately, what ends up happening then is that because it didn’t collaborate across teams that actually needed to be a part of the project, it ended up coming and running to you to help you fix things.

The other thing is, you miss the branding of the whole company by using different ad agencies. Of course, they all have their own things and they all want to be unique, but the overall project is to make sure that the company has that brand image out there with the public and you miss that sometimes. How do you fix that? Sometimes it’s as simple as moving sales and marketing to the same building. In most cases, sales and marketing can be very adversarial and not have a very good working relationship. Last year, we actually brought them together. It’s not sales and marketing anymore, it’s commercial operations under one leadership. It makes a huge difference.

Q: What about senior management? What can it do to help break silos down?

Wendy Kaufman: Very often, senior managers have no idea that silos exist. To get them to recognize it, managers have to learn how to manage up because they’ve got to be able to tell their senior level people. Someone has to say “Do you know what’s going on beneath you?” I don’t think you see silos at the senior vice president level.

Ted: They’re not focused on that. The title and authority get them what they need; they pick up a phone and get a piece of information right away. You’re not looking at it from the ground floor level—you’re looking at it from the 60,000 foot view.

Deborah: They assume that because they said, “OK, now we’re a team-building organization and we’re going to collaborate,” that somehow it miraculously happens. If you truly want to be a leader, you get back out on the floor and ask the questions. It doesn’t take long. Meet with just a few people and you’ll see the huge silos in the organization. It wouldn’t even take you a whole day—probably only a couple hours.

Wendy: You would think these people know what’s going on. Sometimes, I’ll go in and say, “You know these two managers hate each other, right?” They have no idea! I ask myself, “How could that possibly be! You must just walk into your office and close the door.”

Q: As individuals, do you ever find yourself slipping into the silo mentality? What do you do to avoid that?

Deborah: If I’m really paying attention in the room, which is one of the things I try and practice, I can start to recognize when I’m taking the silo approach. When that happens, I tend to be a little bit more on the negative side than the positive side. I’m not listening to what everyone else needs. I’m trying to push everybody to my way. If I pay attention, I can start to pick that up, and I try and quickly change that.

I’d like to say that although we still have silos, we have come a long way as an organization. It’s much easier for me now to get HR in the same room as IT and branding and sales training. It’s much more acceptable, but there are individuals that want to go off and do their own thing. That tends to come more from the brand marketers, and I understand why that is, because they have a huge responsibility to drive the product. Each brand thinks it's the exception. That can be very frustrating, but it is getting better. There are more of us reaching out to them proactively, which I’m finding is so critical. You have to reach out to them proactively, let them know who you are and that you’re there to support them and if they need anything, come to you first and let you help them.

During the discussion, Wendy Kaufman brought up a very cogent example of a company famous for its spirit of teamwork, Southwest Airlines. Southwest requires all employees, from the executive suite on down, to spend some time working in the trenches—waiting on customers, helping to clean and prep a plane for flight, and so forth. As Southwest makes clear, nothing breaks silos down more effectively than walking a mile in another’s shoes.

Travis Adkins
Editor, Leader’s Edge

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.