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‘Break Down Silos’: What Does That Mean, Exactly?

‘Break Down Silos’: What Does That Mean, Exactly?

Today more of us are spending more time doing our jobs remotely, but in one sense people employed by the same company have been working at a distance from each other for quite a while. Often when it comes time to focus the company on a common objective — like executing a new growth strategy, for

Today more of us are spending more time doing our jobs remotely, but in one sense people employed by the same company have been working at a distance from each other for quite a while.

Often when it comes time to focus the company on a common objective — like executing a new growth strategy, for example — leaders discover that those in different departments might as well be living on different planets.

They are technically part of the larger team, but they only communicate with those outside their function when it’s absolutely necessary.

The way they work seems to be somewhat different from other departments, but their exact processes are a bit of a mystery.

They have their own set of success metrics — even when the senior leadership team has outlined some very different key performance indicators for the organization as a whole.

When management or leadership experts talk about the need to break down silos, this is what they mean.

These business units or team members are behaving as an island unto themselves. Even if they are working in an open concept office, it’s as though they have brick walls that keep them away from the rest of the company.

How silos happen

Sometimes organizations get siloed because they’ve grown so large that creating a sense of cohesiveness among departments has gotten complex.

You don’t have to be a large firm to have silos crop up, though. Even a small or medium-sized business with a handful of people could be working — even unintentionally — at cross purposes with each other.

Silos often stem from a fear of sharing information. People might be afraid of changing old habits. They might not feel confident their peers will do the right thing, or might even make their work harder.

Not all silos are born out of negative attitudes, though. There are also companies where people have just gotten used to working so independently that it becomes a detriment to the overarching business objectives.

This is why breaking down silos has become such a rallying cry among leaders, and here’s what you can do to begin moving towards a better approach to working collectively:

1. Money gets wasted

Think of a company that decides to invest in new technology to boost productivity or increase sales. The best way to make it work, however, is when data is fed into it by everyone in the company.

Then, after the deployment, three out of the four main departments are using the technology but the fourth avoids it at all costs. As a result, the technology doesn’t deliver what was expected, and return on investment (ROI) recedes into the distance.

The same can happen with any big project in a company. When people or teams are siloed, deadlines get missed, mistakes get made and budgets that should have been the foundation for success stories lead to failures instead.

Make sure when you’re doing anything company-wide that you show the connection between everyone’s participation and the fallout if they don’t.

2. Learning goes awry

Ideally, companies should always be gathering data that turns into insights which improve business performance. In other words, they should be in a state of constant learning about their customers, the market and how to continue delivering value in greater or more varied ways.

Silos force companies to keep their learning inward-facing because they have to fix things that are broken.

When departments or teams don’t communicate or collaborate well, business leaders can put in hours, months or even years trying to deconstruct the problem. There can be duplication of effort. You might see productivity, but in areas that don’t actually lead to revenue. There also tends to be a lot of people just trying to track down information or answers to questions that should be easy to find.

There are many tools and technologies available today that make communication and collaboration across teams quick, simple and adaptable to a variety of work styles. Use them so that you’re spending less time trying to get the organization working as one, and instead put time into working on a true growth strategy.

3. Customers give up

No one wants to deal with multiple versions of the same company.

If you seem to get different experiences depending on whether you’re talking to someone in sales, marketing or customer service, for instance, you’ll immediately recognize that you’re dealing with a dysfunctional organization.

As a customer, you don’t have the time or interest in getting everyone aligned. Breaking down the silos is not your job. It’s far easier just to look for another company that has its act together, and to give them your business instead.

If you find yourself nodding at all this, you’ll realize that silos aren’t a problem you can allow to fester. The longer they exist, the more entrenched in the corporate culture they become. That means they can be even harder to break down, because it feels like an even more disruptive change to the employees who are affected.

This can be difficult to do as a purely top-down exercise, so get everyone involved. Ask them to do a bit of a self-assessment on the degree to which they’re talking to other functions and sharing information today. Let them offer up one or two suggestions on how they could do better, in ways that are measurable and have a deadline attached.


You may be able to start breaking down silos as part of an annual strategic planning session or off-site with your company. In other cases it may happen as part of a project or initiative that needs to move forward.

Even then, don’t limit this to a single moment of introspection and change management. Most companies will never be able to break down silos permanently. They have a way of creeping back up as different people get hired and as processes evolve.

Your best bet is to recognize the fact that the risk of silos is ever-present, and that fighting against them is a skill that every single person in your company should learn to develop.

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