Driving through the Midwest, you’ll see grain silos standing alone. Each silo is designed for a specific type and amount of grain. Departments within organizations are designed to accomplish specific tasks. Silo thinking is when a department or a team member stands alone, and focus is placed on the department instead of the organization. Often, the department becomes more important to its members than the organization, as a whole. It is difficult to improve the organization, implement new procedures, or change the culture, until the silos are removed. Here’s a few tips on how to demolish silos.

Have you ever heard, said, or thought the following?

  • It’s not my problem
  • They don’t work in my department
  • That’s what they said to do, so I’m doing it
  • I don’t have time to deal with things outside of my team
  • Let them figure it out

If you’ve observed any of these bullet points in your workplace, you have seen a silo in action. Silos are everywhere. They are in every organization and on most teams. Silo thinking destroys teams and undermines organizations. You must constantly uncover, discover, and bust the silos down! It’s critical to your organizations success to know how to demolish silos.

A Valuable Lesson In Silo Thinking

In 2008, a police department ordered decal shields for its squad cars from a graphic provider I worked with. The artwork from the customer was of poor quality, but the customer and sales person signed off on the artwork. They assumed if there were a problem, creative would let them know.

1. The creative dept. thought it would look bad, but passed it to the print operator because the customer and salesperson had signed off.
2. The print operator thought it was bad, but produced it anyway. Creative had OK’d it.
3. Installation thought it looked bad, but installed it on the squad cars. It was not their job to make a no-install decision.
4. The police department would not pay for the work and asked for it to be removed. The graphic’s president visited the police chief and convinced him to give them another chance.

Bottom line—the graphic provider lost time, money, and reputation… All because of silo thinking. Your entire team needs to know how to demolish silos.

This Sounds Obvious, Doesn’t It?!

Open your eyes—it’s everywhere. I was recently at a company when a TV call-to-action ad aired. The ad exploded, and the department charged with taking the calls could not handle the call volume. Though the department repeatedly asked for help, I observed a dozen people not attempt to help. It wasn’t their department! I imagine some of you reading this are thinking, “I wouldn’t have time for that either; it’s not my job.” Are you working for the good of your department at the expense of the organization? Does your business  know what a silo and how to demolish silos? Should they?

Social Media & The Silo Expose’

Have you found it difficult to gather support for SM? Resistance to social media is not always about SM knowledge and belief. It may be about self-centered turfism, not seeing the big picture, and not working for the good of the entire organization. To successfully engage team members in social media, you may have to tear down silos (more on blowing up silos in the next post). Social media can benefit an entire organization.

It can be a marketing tool, PR source, lead generator, customer satisfaction gauge, and much more. Have you ever wondered why everyone doesn’t see this? Co-workers siloed in one area may not understand the importance of SM, regardless of how well it is explained, until the silos are gone.

Symptoms of The Silo Effect

Not long ago, there were major fires in a California municipality. Navy helicopters were available and equipped to fight fire. Trained personnel were waiting to respond, however, the trained personnel had not attended the local municipality’s fire prevention training and accreditation. They were not allowed to participate. Thousands of dollars of property was destroyed.

While consulting for a company, I observed a shipping manager refuse to ship a parcel that was not 100% to policy. Rather than fix it, ship it, and work with the department on improving, he sent it back. The shipping manager’s answer was, “It’s the only way they learn.” No, it may be one way they learn, among many training options, or they might retaliate. The facts are, the shipping was delayed, customers were put off, and animosity was created within the organization.

Self-centered Turfism defined as misplaced loyalty to a department rather than the organization. This is a root cause of dissention, which hinders performance. Any time the priorities of a department overshadow the priorities of the organization the vision and mission of the entire team are jeopardized.

During a silo-busting seminar, I told a group of hard-working managers that most of them exhibited poor work ethic. They disagreed. I asked them to consider the following:

1. Had they ever said, “It’s not my job, my department, or my responsibility,” when they could have helped?

2. Have they ever observed detrimental behavior, procedures not followed, or policies broken, and did nothing because it was not their department?

3. Have they ever advised a team member—capable of helping—to let the other department handle it?

I asked the group to consider how to grade anyone’s work ethic if they did not help the whole team. They were very quiet.

Causes of Silos

  • Poor communication between departments or team members
  • Spending more time on planning than working with people
  • Training delegated to those with poor training skills
  • Management confusing talks with influence
  • No plan for long-term people development

My hope for this post is to define and explain Silo Thinking. Bloomberg Businessweek discloses how Silo Thinking let us down in the financial crisis of 2008.

How to Demolish Silos

How to demolish silos begins with acknowledging they exist in your organization and then fighting against them.

Cross Training

An organization I know has included basic, one-day, interdepartmental cross training for new employee orientation.


Shadow employees from other departments; one day of observation could change a year!

Shared Meetings

Conduct interdepartmental group meetings for recognition, state of the company, vision, and monthly status meetings. Invite other managers and departments to these meetings.


Hold a seminar on team building after hours, or at lunch, and invite all departments.

Give Team Recognition

Look for opportunities to recognize how the team worked well together.

Influence The Influencers

Whom do their peers hold in high esteem? (It’s not always who management thinks it is.) Determine the influencers and get them on your side. You do not have the time or ability to influence everyone, so use the help available to you.

Go Public

List commitments, or post company standings in a public area. For example, the graphics company I worked with instituted a waste tracking board, by job, in a work area seen by most departments. This helped reduce waste throughout the company, and fostered interdepartmental teamwork.

Use Ad-hoc Instead of Bureaucracy

In a bureaucracy, a broken machine would require specific channels be communicated through for repair. The repair order would be sent from the machine operator to the supervisor, and then to the supervisor of repair, and finally, to the repair person. This is time-consuming and increases the chance of miscommunication. In the adhocracy, the machine operator would go directly to the repair person.

Teach Information Gathering and Problem Solving Techniques

Michael Brown, who headed FEMA when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, had the nearly impossible task of gathering correct information to make informed decisions. As information was processed within FEMA, it was diluted, fitting the realities of various agencies or individuals handling the info. The bigger the organization, the more difficult information gathering becomes; by the time it gets to the war room, the information is often wrong. Decisions made on faulty information often fail. For example, not sending busses to evacuate the dome was based on faulty and diluted information. Learn to gather information until you fully understand the situation.

Apply Activities Management

Although the final results are very important, they are HISTORY, once achieved.  Activities are a continuing opportunity to coach, educate, and impact the results. Manage the activities, not the results. Recognize the  activities that need improved, reinstated, added, discontinued, or strengthened.

Institute Character First

Character First is the philosophy of character before ability, skill, or knowledge.

Use Many Techniques

Bulldozing the walls of silo thinking takes a team and many tools. Don’t just rely on one easy answer, one email, one PowerPoint presentation, or some posters. A single 1-hour seminar, alone, will not break the silo. There is not one easy answer. It’s all the above and more. During a silo-busting seminar, I assigned a group the task of choosing and implementing a silo-busting technique. I provided ideas and examples of silo-busting methods, but told the group they could devise their own. One of the participants outlined a plan tracking a customer order from start to finish, recognizing every department’s contribution to the completed job! What a great idea! I don’t have the best ideas for your organization — you do!

In the last paragraph of this Newsweek interview with CEO of Cisco Systems, John Chambers, he discusses their leadership’s silo-busting plan.

“So we’ll have a sales leader go run engineering. A lawyer go run business development. A business development leader go run our consumer operations. We’re going to train a generalist group of leaders who know how to learn and operate in collaboration teamwork. I think that’s the future of leadership.”

Let me know what silo busters you’ve used, or plan to use — what has worked for you? How do you tear down the walls of silo thinking? Do you know how to demolish silos?

How Can I Help You?

I like to help people and organizations, but I have three criteria I consider before taking an assignment – I believe in what the organization stands for, I know I can help, and it looks like fun. If you have any questions, Contact Me. 

Does your business have a  management training plan? Many organizations, large and small, use my book, The New Manager’s Workbook a crash course in effective management, as the basis for their leadership development program. Check it out.

Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash