When I moved to the United States from India nine years ago, an important early addition to my vocabulary was the word “silo.” In agriculture, it’s a structure used for the bulk storage of grains. Outside that trade, though, it’s used widely to describe the compartmentalization that forms inside organizations.
When I saw a silo for the first time upon moving to Ohio six months ago, I snapped a photo, a reminder to myself and my students of how difficult it would be for departments and units with that mentality to communicate with each other.
This happens in many organizations. Everyone follows protocol in their own department, happy they’re meeting targets set by management. The notion of how one’s job is affecting workers in another department rarely surfaces, nor does a worker’s idea of how his or her job is affecting the overall service, product or customer base. “Us” and “them” sentiments are predominant, as is the phrase, “I followed protocol. It’s not my problem.” But it is. The silo problem is a reality in most organizations in all industries.
So how do you deal with it?
Start by asking a simple question: “What is the right thing to do?” With those seven words, barriers break, people step up and take responsibility and what is “not my problem” becomes everyone’s problem.
As author John Shook writes in his book Managing to Learn, switching from a so-called authority based debate (Who is at fault?) to a responsibility focused conversation (What is the right thing to do?) has a radical impact on decision-making. Consensus forms and decisions are made by focusing on indisputable facts, not projecting blame.
How have you worked to break silos in your organization?