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Breaking down silos; by design

Everyone has a take on the topic. Everyone with corporate experience has experienced the harmful effects of silos. We all know the corporate turf wars, the not-invented-here sentiments (NIH, yes, it has an abbreviation); these are probably the worst phenomenon of silo culture.

While more specialized disciplines enter the corporate workforce, departments are still finding it hard to collaborate with other disciplines and departments proactively. And this is a real challenge because research shows that companies with more cross-boundary collaboration achieve greater customer loyalty and higher margins.

When JamTribe works on transformation projects, silo culture might be one of the most significant barriers to change within organizations. If we want to do our job well, we must answer these challenges of silo culture. So here is our attempt to dissect the problem, find root causes, and develop a strategy to deal with this so-called silo-culture.

What causes silo-culture?

The emotions underlying silo-culture vary, although we can grasp some, like lack of understanding or willingness to understand other disciplines, unwillingness to acknowledge or value others’ work, jealousy, fear of infringement of different departments, etc. Of course, silo-culture doesn’t only exist on the work floor. Often, they get fueled by leadership teams who ambitiously compete to realize their objectives at other departments’ expense.

We believe that competition and group loyalty are the root causes of silo culture. Silo culture is about winning, fueled by leadership and dedication to the team. However, it often results in losing, not just of the single team but also of the organization. Silo culture is due to a lack of engagement with the organization’s beliefs and objectives and partly triggered by its governance.

The value of cross-silo collaboration

Today, most innovation and business development opportunities lie in the connections between capabilities, workplaces, customers, and organizations. Simply put, the integrated services and journeys most customers want, but companies struggle to deliver, call for cross-silo collaboration. While digitization changes organizations and the business landscape at great speed, product, and service innovation increasingly rely on interdisciplinary demands, depending on employees who can work across boundaries of departments, teams, and even organizations.

Employees, able to reach beyond their silos, can find colleagues with complementary expertise. Employees doing this learn more, sell more and develop much quicker. With the growing demand for employees who can work across boundaries, it grows the need for leadership to facilitate cross-silo collaboration. However, facilitating cross-silo collaboration also means changing leadership style with a less competitive focus on the department's objectives.

Designing cross-silo collaboration

One way to break silos is to redesign the formal organizational structure. Big consultancy firms love to sell these transformation projects and promise their benchmarks have gained outstanding results at other companies. However, these expensive and painful operations have a significant disadvantage: each new organizational structure solves problems and creates new ones.

Instead of breaking down and rebuilding the formal organization, we believe that there are four domains we should focus on to improve cross-silo collaboration. These four domains are objectives, spaces, rituals, and routines. Also, we learned that by experimenting within these four domains, solutions for breaking down silo-culture within the organization will be validated and implemented. Let’s look at these four domains and see what we can design within.

1. Objectives

Sales-driven organizations love to create measurable objectives that stir up the competition in order to grow. These are useful metrics that push departments to win at others’ expense. From a paradigm of competition, especially for these sales-driven organizations, these objectives get the best out of everyone; it focuses on growing fast and beating competitors. However, from a paradigm of creative engagement, it is less productive.

We believe that objectives often are part of the silo-culture and critical for an organization to function well. They can make an organization work like a collective engine in which each part of the organization has its role. However, it can also break the organization down into compartments competing to achieve the best possible results.

Objectives can be connecting and disconnecting; they can be inclusive or exclusive. If objectives are just measurable key results with an explicit focus on growth, they will be less fitted to trigger creative engagement to a joint cause. Creative engagement is not about quantifiable targets like NPS scores; it is about an organizational vision on creating value.

We believe in objectives that create synergy, rather than division, trigger creative engagement, rather than competition. One of the methods we often use to make these objectives is threshold concepts. These objectives play with emotion and purpose, contain metaphorical and visual meaning, and trigger imagination. These concepts not only focus on the explicit understanding of subject matter but also help teams to understand objectives both conceptually and emotionally. And it helps to design creative engagement across all departments.

2. Spaces

The second domain for breaking silo culture is the use of space. Having done some spatial projects in the last few years, we’ve learned what architects have known for centuries, namely how crucial spaces are for how we feel, what we do, and how we live. The same goes for how we work.

Small rooms seem to work great for decision-making, while big rooms seem to help teams be more creative and explorative. Also, standing and participating in workshops creates equality between participants until someone sits down and unconsciously creates a decisive role. Many of our behavior is unconscious and influenced by the space around us. Workshop rooms creates equality and collaboration; an auditorium creates expertise and influence; a board room with a long table creates decision making and hierarchy. These are just simple principles of how space can influence cross-functional problem-solving.

But another aspect of space has to do with distance. It can also facilitate cross-department collaboration by exposure, such as during breaks, co-working, or events. People from different departments get exposed to each other and learn about each other's capabilities. The spaces domain contains many opportunities for designing exposure and interaction with other departments and less seclusion in their safe, secluded silo.

3. Rituals

For centuries, anthropologists studied rituals within cultures. All human societies, either religious, political or professional, have rituals. Rituals not only include religious worship, celebrations or mourning, they also include hand-shaking or Friday drinks.

Rituals are sequences of activities with symbolic value; they can be gestures, words, actions, or objects performed in a sequence. Because of this sequence, they are predictable, give structure, provide control and meaning. Also, they are shared within communities and work across differences within communities. They have a binding role within an organization or community.

Beyond the office, it is easy to think of examples where rituals engage and motivate people. Think of a sports team that does their yell before running into the field. Or think of a music group drinking a shot before going on stage. Also, families have their particular rituals. Rituals are essential to each culture; they engage; they help celebrate happy moments; or mourn in sad ones.

Designing and co-creating cross-department rituals might not only change culture; it can shape a new culture. Also, in the office, rituals have their role; they help define our culture and increase employee engagement. Examples of cross-department rituals are yearly anniversary celebrations, office drinks, company-wide lunch events, or depersonalizing failure by cross-department reflection sessions. The domain of rituals contains a load of opportunities to design initiatives that increase silo-culture and improves engagement with the organization.

4. The way of working

Most of what we do every day consists of tacit behavior. The way we reply to our emails; how we collaborate with team members; how we react to other departments requests; how we decide what to do and what to reject.

Redesigning our way of work sounds like a drastic measure. However, we believe that to keep relevant as a team or an organization, we should always keep changing and improving our work. We should always keep trying new routines and keep exploring new tools and opportunities that might positively impact our performance. It is necessary to optimize our work and pivot if we have to in a continually changing world. Staying reflective of our work means that we have to see it as a means. We shouldn’t get too much attached to how we work as a means; we should get emotionally connected to the objectives and what we try to achieve every day.

By consciously designing how we collaborate, like a system consisting of tools and people and processes with logical routines, we will get everyone’s best—no matter what department everyone reports.

To conclude

We realize that design traditionally is more associated with products of creative collaboration, but as transformation designers, we also use design and design thinking to shape creative collaboration itself. We believe that transformation design in these four domains can significantly improve cross-silo collaboration. By redesigning team work, we encourage employees to work across silos or help leadership facilitate cross-silo collaboration. By redesigning objectives and initiating collaboration concerning spaces, rituals, and routines, we try to make organizations more agile and resilient. This way, the organization might also get better at orchestrating all the individual links in order to develop all the unique integrated products and services for which your customers so desperately long.

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