Concentrating efforts on the Hinge rather than the Silo might win the battle.
55% of companies still work in silos which is a shocking statistic when it’s reckoned that silos cost the top 500 companies in America around $31.5 Billion a year. You would think by now that organisational culture would have developed sufficiently enough that silos shouldn’t have that big an effect, but it would seem not. So, it’s clear then at least to this humble observer that silos are here to stay for one reason and one reason alone, us, the people.
We hear a lot about silos in the workplace and how they negatively impact workplace performance and culture. We also have a pretty good idea these days on how to define one as well which goes something like this :-
‘Silo mentality in the workplace occurs when people specifically conclude that it is not their responsibility to coordinate their activities with peers or other groups. With this mindset, people have little interest in understanding their part in the success of the organisation as a whole.’ 
I’m not however writing this to rework the old arguments about what defines a silo and what to look out for but because silos, just like us, are not created equally. Here are a couple of aspects regarding silos I think are overlooked.
I’d like to look at that invisible divide, the non-space between the silos, spaces where no one is quite sure where responsibility starts, and ownership stops. It is if you like a dystopic organisational Venn diagram of non-communication, non-responsibility, ownership issues, apathy, ‘it’s not my job’, work to rule, indifference and in severe cases, cognitive dissonance, and where what was discussed in planning meetings fails to materialise or gets ignored completely. If you were to view these diagrams from high above in the C-suite the spaces between silos don’t seem to be there and everything is interlocked with nothing out of place but move down to a more operational hands-on level where you can see them side on, and they take on the appearance of dinner plates in profile overlapping but separated by some invisible and permanent force. This space is the hinge that both separates and connects the silos and it’s in this space that battles are won or lost. The good news is that just like a door hinge the space between silos can be folded back on itself to bring the silos into alignment.
Silos crop up anywhere and at any time.
Even when you think a silo has been reduced to insignificance through your pro-active methods they seem to inexplicably erupt out of nowhere, but nothing could be further than the truth because there’s always a reason for them, rightly or wrongly. The reality is that despite your best efforts they are always there and it’s the degree to which you’re willing to accept their influence upon the wider work that really matters.
Whilst researching this article I was struck by the similarities between the negative effects of workplace silos and critical failures in communication on a battlefield which fall under the banner, ‘That’s not my area of responsibility, mate’. I have a couple of examples from the allied invasion (Liberation for my French friends) of Normandy on June 6th 1944.
For those unfamiliar with the battle, it was and still is the largest seaborne invasion in the history of mankind, and it involved hundreds of thousands of little pieces coming together to form the greater whole on the beaches of Normandy, France. It was critical therefore that everyone understood their roles and their objectives on the day.
To cut a long and fascinating story short, where two invasion beaches met up there was a non-physical boundary line between Omaha Beach where half the American forces were coming ashore and Gold Beach where some of the British were. These beaches were further chopped up into smaller areas and given names like Dog Red, Dog Green, Charlie Red, Charlie Green, and so on and all with non-physical lines between them.
In his book, D-Day, Anthony Beevor describes a silo mentality influencing attitudes perfectly. “American and Canadian observers were amazed by the British soldiers’ expectation of regular tea and smoke breaks. On the first day of the Normandy invasion, many who felt tired after wading ashore believed that they had earned a rest on the beach simply for having survived the landing. An American liaison officer reported: ‘There was also a feeling among many of the men that, having landed, they had achieved their objective, and there was time for a cigarette – and even a brew-up – instead of getting on with the task of knocking out the enemy defences and pushing inland’.” This clear example of a misaligned priority in this particular team is a significant marker for a silo mentality.
In another startling observation on the delineation at work between silos, Beevor goes on to say, “Sappers, as a Canadian observed, did not believe it was their task to fire at the enemy when not engaged on an engineering task, and infantry ‘refused’ to fill a crater or get a vehicle out of trouble”.
Now they are extreme examples of workplace silos, in some ways they’re even a little humorous, and clearly the random refusal to go above and ‘beyond’ the call of duty during this historic moment is not going to tip the balance of power against the wider effort, but if it happened again and again and was prevalent throughout an organisation and in this case it being the allied attacking force of over 160,000 people, very quickly it would become a serious problem, objectives would be missed, and the organisation would cease to exist which in this case would mean them being thrashed back into the sea and roundly defeated. Fortunately, the Normandy landings were a one-off with a simple single initial aim, to get off the beaches and move inland and enough soldiers did eventually make it off the beaches. However, a more entrenched and fixed style of silo did become a battlefield problem 30 years earlier and would become a source of great tension within the trenches of WWI.
I would like you to imagine yourself flying above a WWI battlefield, as if you were a visiting Swallow recently arrived from the deserts of north Africa something you would have done every summer between 1914 and 1918, what do you see? If it’s mud, rain, death and destruction, barbed wire, rats then maybe you’re letting your mind run too far because it’s a matter of fact that many battlefields only looked like hell on earth once the battles began. Before the Battle of the Somme kicked off with a week-long artillery barrage where 71 high explosive shells landed on every yard of enemy line; it was a peaceful and somewhat serene summer landscape (July 1st itself, the day the battle started, was a hot summers day with a vibrant blue sky).
The ground was laid out with adversaries dug into trenches facing each other only a few hundred yards apart. The daily routine of keeping watch, mending kit and equipment ran like clockwork, and officers saw to the administration of their particular company and battalion, each and every day. It was a tried and tested routine; it was in essence Business As Usual for many. This routine was carried out day after day, week after week, and as it turned out year after year. It was only broken by the regular rotation of battalions into and out of the front-line trench which was carried out on average every four to five days.
Allied and German trenches were laid out systematically and each consisted of three roughly parallel trench lines (the Front-Line Trench was closest to the enemy, then came the Support Trench some yards back, and then yet more yards back the Reserve Trench) which stretched from Nieuwpoort in Belgium all the way down to Switzerland, this is what we know as the Western Front. The Gap between the opposing Front-Line trenches was termed No-Man’s Land.
A battalion was tasked with manning a few hundred yards of line left and right of an agreed point on the map, this was their area of control. Much pride was taken by each battalion in leaving their part of the line as clean and habitable as possible for the relieving battalion, in fact during late 1914 as the war moved from a phase of movement to one of entrenchment, battalions had competitions to see who could build the most level sections of sandbags which would be judged by the Sergeant Majors and extra rations given out as reward, a treat you could enjoy if you weren’t shot by an enemy sniper who could now clearly see any deviation along the perfectly straight line of sandbags! – to say that the British approached the early months of WWI with gay abandon would not be far off.
Very quickly the battalions cottoned on and the procedure stopped. What didn’t stop was the immense pride each battalion took in their part of the line, and where their line started and the neighbouring battalion’s line finished was very important, and it’s these illusory lines that became the problem and where we shall concentrate our focus.
These lines of control or authority existed on the maps, but there was nothing to denote it on the ground physically, in particular it was a huge problem where battalions of different national armies abutted one another, Montauban on the Somme is one such place where the British army ended and the French army began. It was hard enough to identify these areas when soldiers spoke the same language, there was practically no chance in the heat of battle when the two couldn’t understand each other.
As the individual soldiers on watch looked out across No-Man’s Land, their view across to the enemy was split into specific arcs of fire with a point in the left distance denoting one extreme edge and another point on the right delineating that edge and therefore the totality of their responsibility. Either side of the individual soldier were others which if the leaders had done their work properly, had their own arcs of fire which overlapped one another, thus giving complete and secure coverage of the opposing enemy territory.
There’s a problem however, to your right is your neighbour, and they speak a different language. You know that he knows where your arc finishes and his should begin but you also both know that this involves a conflict of responsibility between two different areas and in fact, two different countries, and therefore you are now in what’s called a, flying flank, simply because to all intents and purposes you’re there on your own as you don’t know what the neighbour’s intentions will be if you are attacked.
The accidental silo
To be fair to you and your battalion, you didn’t want to be isolated from your neighbour but because no one was willing to discuss who was accountable for what, your battalion now finds itself in what we would call in the workplace today, a silo and in this particular case, a lack of communication and ineffective leadership from outside has created the silo. Now we have two silos talking a different language, and each in a unique operating context, and for very different reasons they became siloed. One blames the next-door neighbours for not communicating any decisions across the gap, and the other one blames its leaders for not being there and communicating up and down their own line what to do when asked to support.
Blame begets blame, and very soon another silo appears and this time it’s the leaders who have blamed the men for not taking the initiative on anything and so before you know it there are now three silos. If you count the leaders from one battalion who haven’t managed to communicate effectively their concerns to their neighbouring leaders, there are suddenly four silos, and so it goes on.
These battalions of men literally stood shoulder to shoulder with the physical gap between them being just an imperceptible line where neither general was quite sure where his influence ended, and his opposite number’s begun. This line, is therefore more resembling a hinge, and ran right over no-man’s land to the enemy trenches and beyond if necessary meaning that if there was an enemy attack anywhere down this line and help was required, it was going to be patchy at best if it arrived at all.
It’s obvious therefore to understand an enemy’s desire to find out where these hinges were placed and as much effort was spent in capturing soldiers during trench raids as was expended in fighting battles, to gather critical information that would hinder the successful running of the enemy trench system opposite.
Once the location of the hinge between battalions or armies was identified the enemy would rightly work out which side of the battlefield to concentrate their forces against and without fail it would always result in needless casualties. Much time and effort was spent in probing these hinges to try and understand the fighting health of the unit opposite.
These soldiers were operating in silos and this might sound bizarre because if there’s one organisation where communication is the key skill it’s the military but even here and through the impact of an external force, silos erupted.
The organisation was the army, which was split into different Corps (Business Units if you like), then sub-divided again into Divisions, then into Brigades, then Battalions and those split down into companies, sections, and platoons. Each one of those had an area of responsibility over which it held sway. The further you went back away from the front line, the less it mattered as people had time to discuss areas of influence and the such like, but as you got closer to the front it really mattered to the men. Who was giving orders and who was accountable?
The one thing that the armies of WWI had which isn’t practicable in today’s business world was a strict command structure, and given the size of the organisation was around 125,000 men at the start and over 1 million at the end this is no surprise. What was shared with the modern-day workplace was that the army had a very strong vision (to win) and could readily expect everyone to work towards achieving a common goal (keep winning), motivating and incentivising was also straightforward (don’t get killed). Even the four silos I described above bought into the vision, the common goal, and the motivation, but it all fell down on Executing & Measuring.
The Uncomfortable Truth
In the civilian workplace when there is a culture of working in silos, organisations are at huge risk of losing market share as internal battles are fought and profit lost to competitors because of a lack of ability of departments to effectively understand, align, communicate across divides, execute projects in a timely fashion, and measure progress against agreed timelines.
Just like in the WWI example even if your staff are motivated and are ‘company people’ they’re at the effect of the silo culture and are just as helpless at successfully crossing the silo line as the British soldier was with his counterpart standing next to him in a trench, and with the best will in the world the staff who are in their silos will not change their attitudes overnight, so the question becomes then how to minimise the negative impacts of the silos rather than how to remove them?
There are a number of warning signs that let you know you have a silo problem – to name just six:
- misaligned priorities
- lack of trust
- information hoarding
- a drop in operational efficiency
- a drop in employee engagement
- poor customer experience
None of these can be blamed on the computer system, the photocopier or the coffee machine.
Equally, there are huge numbers of ‘solutions to your silo’ articles online to choose from all of which have one overarching theme, ‘collaboration across functions’. Collaboration however only truly works if it’s managed effectively, what happens for example, when a team leader who has been busy collaborating across functions returns to their silo and meets a wall of apathy or at best resentful compliance because they haven’t been showing up as a leader? The answer of course is that the silo stays the same or antagonism and apathy increase, and the whole point here in the first place was to depower and starve the silo.
We have to therefore, take a step back and look at the people more in-depth. Why are they working in a silo in the first place and what’s at play in their environment? Does the manager know the staff as well as he or she should do? What motivates and demotivates them? What is their partner’s name? Is their best friend actually a pet? Does the manager know what extent to a lesser and greater degree, their job role is? Do the staff know anything about the manager/leader? – remember that this is a two-way street, they’re all in this together.
You have to know what’s important to your people. If there’s no engagement between your staff, and the manager/leader doesn’t understand how they can be engaged with the role that they’re doing, then they won’t understand the company vision the company’s common goal, and if they don’t know any of that and how to motivate for that vision and goal, what they execute and what transpires will give a less than satisfactory outcome.
Deal with the hinge, manage the silo
The key to dealing with silos is really about reframing your attitude to them. Battalions of soldiers in a trench (in a silo) are still motivated to stay alive (the vision), they will still carry out the tasks required to do that (the common goal), and similarly the people in a workplace silo will in general on the lowest level of consciousness be motivated to keep their jobs which pay the bills etc, so isolating them some more by calling them out might be counter-productive.
Do not isolate, instead, engage with each one of the individuals.
What you also have to think about is the cost to the whole company of a heavy-handed approach to clearing the silos by shuffling staff because there’s no guarantee that more silos won’t pop up once the fallout has cleared. Moving the staff just moves the problem.
The skill is to manage the silo and its people in such a way that their impact is mitigated, whilst at the same time concentrating on the hinge that exists between the silos – deal with the hinge, manage the silos impact.
Some have talked about building bridges between the silos but this only, excuse the pun, bridges over the hinge and the person tasked with bringing alignment and communication between the rival silos, who is now metaphorically running to-and-fro across the bridge, ends up just being a pawn in the ensuing power struggles. The hinge is the key but in particular how much light you shine on it or rather how much pressure you bring to that hinge because if you press a hinge hard enough in the middle the ends fold up toward each other.
Remember that the hinge is home to all the negative excesses in the organisation; non-communication, no responsibility, no ownership, apathy, indifference, cognitive dissonance. What’s required is some fundamental people management to fold that hinge up, down, around, back, any which way that is effective at bringing the silos closer together, and being 100% aware at all times of course that the hinge can just as easily fold away from itself taking the silos along if it is allowed to.
What I do differently to achieve this origami-esk manoeuvring is stand firmly on that hinge to challenge the negativity, and this simply means giving truly effective briefings; constructive feedback; making it clear what I’m prepared to tolerate; making my motivation and inspirations known; empowering the individuals in the teams/silos; and being very aware that what I’m role modelling will directly impact my team’s outcomes and results.
In other words, to make this hinge fold toward itself and bring the silos in so that they can work together, requires a leader’s mindset that is geared toward empathy, honesty with integrity, and confidence. You also should be inspiring, committed, and passionate, and it’s critical that you be a fantastic communicator and decision maker, be accountable, a delegator, an empowerer, a creator, and an innovator………the big question to ask is who in your organisation consistently displays these hinge folding abilities?