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How better communication and curiosity can turn silo working into a force for good

Group Of People Working Happily

Silos in the physical world are large containers where something useful is stored for convenience, then taken out and used. Silos therefore serve a purpose.

In commerce, research and project management however, silos are often considered counterproductive, wasteful, or self-serving. Why so different? Are there management techniques we can apply to make sense of them, understand them and eventually turn them to advantage? Yes, we can, and the basis of this is of course – communication.

The most obvious feature of a silo is a wall or barrier, there to keep the material in or the world out and they have that in common with managerial silos. It’s worth considering some of their main characteristics.

Features of the managerial silo

They usually start with the very best of intentions* - whether within a project or a research programme there will be areas that are so specialist or narrow that a tight focus is the only thing that makes sense; in these environments, you really want your team to focus on what they are doing without interruption. [* but let’s not forget what the road to Hell is lined with]

In small enterprises, many more things are visible, and walls are easier to look over. It becomes obvious very quickly if two specialist groups are doing largely the same thing. Communication between fewer people and groups is mathematically simpler; everyone knows what’s going on.

In big multi-billion-pound programmes, the potential for wastefulness through the proliferation of silos is massive, and it can run into millions of pounds. Looking over the wall becomes more complex and scrutiny by others can even be construed as ‘meddling’.  

Pet projects, by their nature have champions, specialists, and that special quality of being blessed from on high. To stifle such enthusiasm, creative effort and yes, often sheer genius, would be counterproductive – nevertheless there is a tipping point, where a pet project can slip into becoming a silo project, and walls become difficult to look over.

Organisational goals, costs, and profitability

When any group within an organisation does not share information, processes, tools, goals or priorities with others it is a dead cert that they are working against the organisation’s declared objectives. When that happens, the organisation is unknowingly paying people to not follow its business plan, which is not a recipe for profitability or success.

Sometimes two or more teams have been working on similar processes, perhaps for subtly different reasons. In reality, they are duplicating effort. In this situation the organisation is paying twice for the same output, in other words doubling its costs.

Less common, but just as wasteful is where different silo outputs yield different results or recommend different courses of action; this can lead to a nightmare for corporate decision makers who may not know which team’s results to believe.

Communication and the ‘curiosity muscle’

Many things have been written about the undoubted benefits of a highly collaborative culture, and organisations have a vast array of tools at their disposal to keep collaboration at the core of everything. These can include Lunch’n’Learn sessions, newsletters, blogs, webinars and sometimes just sitting in on another team’s meetings.  This kind of interaction, if nurtured, is the start of a collaborative culture, where individuals are encouraged to find out what others are doing. This really is the gold standard for preventing the waste and cost of silo working.

But on its own, a collaborative culture is not enough.  What is still missing is what I refer to as the ‘curiosity muscle’ – and this is something that individuals must develop for themselves. It is not something that always flows from an organisation’s culture.  It means that before you launch into a new initiative you need to stop and ask yourself ‘I wonder if anyone else is doing anything like this?’. You might just find out that somebody is, which saves you the trouble and embarrassment of duplication, or maybe to adjust your own plan so that it provides an output that complements, not duplicates other work. Go and take a look.

Unless your organisation is working on sensitive information, perhaps commercial or military in nature, there should be no reason why other colleagues would feel threatened by your curiosity muscle; most people get it immediately and are only too happy to share ideas.  If you do encounter resistance however, then you may be staring at the dark heart of a silo culture right there. This would be the time to have a grown-up discussion with a line manager to get this out in the open.

Knowing what is going on, MBWA and sugar

The curiosity muscle is not just the province of individuals. Let me be clear: a senior management that does not know what’s going on is at best going to waste time, cost and effort. In my own recent experience, a team brought in from one of the Big Four consultants, to shake things up on a big programme, were completely unaware of a key quality initiative that was already running and getting results. They hadn’t looked.

Management by walking about (AKA management by wandering around) is a management style that refers to executives spending time interacting with staff while wandering about the office and is often a euphemism for knowing what is going on and where the good and less good work is happening. It’s currently made more difficult by pandemic conditions, there are ways round that.

I’ll leave you with a story of what can be found when silos obscure things; many years ago, a scandal rocked the sugar supply industry on the tiny island of St Kitts, where I grew up – one of the huge dockside silos that held the raw sugar was being cleaned and there, near the bottom was found the crystallised corpse of a worker who had inexplicably vanished some years earlier. The sugar he had decomposed into had, by then found its way onto the tables of countless British families. More tea, vicar?

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