What is a “silo mentality”?

The term “silo” is a business buzzword that has been thrown around for a number of years. But what does it actually mean and why should you care?  

The dictionary definition and the original meaning of silo has agricultural roots. Originally a silo was “a tall tower or pit on a farm used to store grain”.  In later years it was used to mean “an underground chamber in which a guided missile is kept ready for firing”.  These days, we use the term to refer to teams or departments who are isolated.  They work independently of each other refusing to share processes, intelligence, and resources.   

Why is this a bad thing in business? As the saying goes if “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” the business is uncoordinated.  This is a recipe for disaster on a lot of fronts.   

When businesses have teams or departments with a silo mentality it can mean there is an unwillingness to share information with individuals or different departments. It can also manifest as tunnel vision when there is no consideration that other people and the business would benefit from a more collaborative approach. This attitude contributes to a reduction in efficiency and, if left unchecked, damages corporate culture.  

“Much as we believe that we are most productive in our little silos, the fundamental fact remains that humans are social animals. By denying the opportunity to collaborate and cross-pollinate ideas, businesses contribute to their own speedy demise.” Pratik Dholakiya

How do we know if we have it?

Silo mentality is a standard growing pain of organisations as they expand.  As businesses develop and the organisation branches out into multiple departments a common side effect is an absence of sharing information.   

Symptoms of silo mentality include:

  • Issues not being picked up or key tasks being missed
  • Breaks in the chain of communication
  • Work being duplicated in one or more areas
  • Lack of accountability
  • Confusion over roles and areas of responsibility 

All of the above lead to decreased performance, missed or under-achievement of targets, poor staff morale. 

What happens if we don’t do anything about it?

Silo working isn’t just episodic behaviour.  Silo working is a pattern which becomes a habit.  Like all unhelpful habits, silo mentality means progress gets harder.

Silo mentality arises more commonly in organisations where teams have conflicting priorities, especially in matrix working.  This type of protective behaviour means projects are hindered.  If projects or products in development span across two or more teams they don’t move forward as quickly as they could because there is no joined up working.   This is a particular challenge for global teams and teams working remotely. 

Where silo working does particular damage is that it fosters a culture of a lack of accountability and ownership.  Every long distance relationship faces its own challenges but advances in technology mean we risk losing the human connection.  

Why does Silo mentality happen and what can we do about it?  

Silo mentality is a cultural issue which usually cascades down from the top of the business. Managers of successful organisations must be encouraged to promote the free flow of information between departments. Senior managers need to lead by example and be open and willing to share information with their employees.  In order to foster a culture of openness and collaboration, this behaviour must be demonstrated at the very top of the business. This means that we need to focus on the importance of building relationships and real connection. If there is a lack of connection and meaningful relationships it can lead to competition and you may also see individual employees hang on to information for their own benefit. This is especially common in teams where trust is an issue. To get matrix working operating efficiently we need to ensure there is a focus on building trust as well as creating clarity around roles and responsibilities. The organisation needs to get clear on the difference between responsibility versus accountability and make certain that every individual in each of its teams, understand what is expected of them and how they contribute to the bigger picture. In addition to this everyone needs to commit to ‘calling it out’ when deliverables are not met. That doesn’t mean blaming, it means taking a solution-based approach to get back on track.

Whatever the reasons for silo working, ultimately it exists because it is not being addressed from the top.  If you want to move from silo working to collaboration and improve performance across the entire organisation you need to start build trust, focus on relationships, and improve communication.  

If you suspect you have a silo mentality problem within your organisation you need a holistic approach. Here are 3 things to get started:

  • Start at the top – company culture starts right at the top. Make sure senior managers understand their responsibility when it comes to sharing information and that starts with role modelling the behaviours that they want to see.
  • Create a unified vision.  Make sure everyone knows their part in the organisation and their contribution to the greater goal.
  • Ask for help  If the problem seems too ingrained or you can’t see the wood for the trees, get help. 

I work with large organisations and specialise in matrix structures.  I know how they operate and the challenges they face.  If you have a problem and you need help let me know. You can email me at hello@jocowlin.com.

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