Afflicted with silos? Here are some tactics that might break them down

Organizational silos are common; to break them down, you first have to understand what in your business is driving employees to form them

Dear Bob ...

I'm the semi-new CIO for a large IT division (six months on the job) and the organizational silos here are driving me nuts. I've tried all the usual techniques, like reorganizing to break them down, shuffling the management deck, and delivering sermons on the subject at my senior staff meetings, but nothing I've tried seems to be working.

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Any thoughts on some new and different techniques?

- At wits end

Dear Witty ...

Sure. Nothing to it. Easy to fix -- should take you about five minutes.

That's in a parallel universe. In this one, it's a tough proposition.

Still, it can be done. Here are some suggestions:

  • Analyze the compensation system, especially how managers earn bonuses. Most companies that have strong silos have compensation systems that penalize managers who fail to build them.
  • Analyze the budgeting process. Most companies that have strong silos budget in ways that encourage us-versus-them competition among the managers who see the process as a zero-sum game.
  • Establish goals that require collaboration. Dividing the world into we and they seems to be a very basic human tendency. You can't eliminate the instinct, but you can redirect it so that members of your organization consider each other to be we. The starting point for this is to create interdependencies.
  • Establish goals that can only be achieved with small, cross-functional teams. Us-versus-them attitudes have a hard time surviving some intense working-together time.
  • Ask. Ask your senior staff members why they are still forming silos. Ask middle managers why they are still forming silos. Even better, ask non-managerial employees why their peers seem to feel such a strong sense of interteam rivalry. (Don't ask employees why they feel it -- that would be a great way to put them on the defensive and get answers designed to placate you.)

The short version: People do what they do for reasons. If you want them to change how they behave, you have to take away the reasons they act that way and give them reasons to act differently.

- Bob