How Silos Naturally Form in Organizations and What You Can Do About It

The outlines of two men working separately at their desks
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Imagine an orchestra where each section is playing beautifully but without coordinating or following a conductor. The strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion all sound great on their own, but together, despite their common goal to deliver an exquisite musical performance, they create a jarring and inharmonious sound.

This is a fundamental issue most leaders face in organizations. People routinely make decisions that address their immediate needs and concerns but that inadvertently contribute to systemic problems that affect both local and organization-wide performance. Why would people do this? As tempting as it may be to blame people for these problem-causing behaviors, it’s not their fault. Their intentions are good – the adverse effects are a direct result of the silos we put them in.

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Don’t miss this intriguing webinar from HRDQ-U

The New Leader: Moving Beyond Silos to Optimize Performance

8 Common Factors That Lead to Organizational Silos

When facing the kind of complexity that any mid-large size organization presents, it seems perfectly rational to assume that the best way to manage that complexity is to break it up into smaller, more manageable parts. Yet just like the orchestra, the parts are interdependent!

Here are 8 common factors that lead to organizational silos:

  • Prioritizing local tasks and responsibilities 
  • Time pressure and constraints
  • Communication gaps between functions
  • Lack of information availability and visibility
  • Localized performance metrics
  • “Not my job” mentality
  • Rewards and incentives for individual performance
  • Resource competition

 

These factors are not intended to produce poor system-wide outcomes. In fact, they may be seen as useful guardrails to help focus workers on the myriad of challenges they face.

Why Silos Don’t Work

So, what’s wrong with working in silos? Consider an overcrowded Emergency department at a community hospital on a Friday night. While this problem may be most apparent in Emergency, that department on its own can’t solve it. The ability to effectively manage the problem depends on a coordinated, organization-wide response. Departments downstream from Emergency (like Surgery and ICU) need to float their excess resources upstream to where the need is greatest while flexing up their own capacity to facilitate patient throughput as the spikes in demand ripple throughout the hospital. In fact, the reluctance by these downstream departments to give up their own resources is often a cause of the Emergency crowding problem in the first place. 

The same is true in any industry. When the pressure is on, people default to working in silos and the decision to prioritize immediate needs over “someone else’s problem” is a rational thing to do.

This cartoon illustrates the inevitable failure of a non-collaborative approach. All the parts of an organization are “in the same boat,” and yet it’s easy to forget that when we’re sitting in a particular part, often with barriers in between the parts.

Silos don’t work because the parts of any organization are interdependent. The harder people work to just optimize their part, the worse the organization performs in the end.

Defining Effective Collaboration

It’s impossible to address your immediate needs without at least occasionally working across functional boundaries. And if you ask people at any organization if they are collaborative, their answer is almost always “yes.”  Even in a siloed organization, people collaborate at some level.

But what does effective collaboration actually look like? For organization-wide performance, a high level of collaboration is essential. A useful tool is this Collaboration Ladder, which helps people be explicit about collaborative actions.

Organizations working in silos are usually stuck at “communicate needed info,” and they tend to consider the lower rungs on the ladder as adequate collaborative behavior. The barriers that form silos are the same reasons why people struggle to move up the ladder. Consider the following common perspectives that illustrate this challenge:

  •  “How do I communicate needed information if I don’t know what others need?”
  • “Why would I treat peers as customers if we compete for resources?”
  • “Why am I expected to share responsibility? That’s not in my job description.”

 

And yet, as mentioned above, people need to be willing and able to move up the ladder to improve. Ultimately, an organization that shares responsibility across functional boundaries will be more effective at adapting to change, tackling complex challenges, making better decisions, and producing better organization-wide outcomes.

Removing Barriers to Enable Effective Collaboration

So, if we want people to collaborate at the highest level, and we expect silo-forming barriers to stand in the way, what can we do about this to get results?

There is a simple, powerful exercise to identify the drivers and barriers within an organization that relate to any desired behavior. It’s called a Force Field Analysis. Originally developed in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist and pioneer of social, organizational, and applied psychology, this exercise has since been widely adopted in various fields for strategic planning, decision-making, and problem-solving. It involves analyzing and listing the forces that drive or inhibit progress toward a specific goal, enabling organizations to develop targeted strategies for achieving desired outcomes.

Typically, this is a group process because the quality of the information gained depends on getting the perspective of multiple stakeholders in the organization. And it starts as a brainstorming process, just listing the ideas that come up.

Here are the steps to create a Force Field Analysis:

  1. Make a T-chart like the one shown in the example below.
  2. State the desired behavior at the top such as collaboration, although any organizational behavior will work.
  3. Consider what forces are present in the organization that drive this behavior. These are forces currently in play in the organization, not the forces that could hypothetically drive collaboration if they were present. The list should reflect reality. 
  4. List the forces that often (unintentionally) inhibit the behavior.
  5. Once you have a list of both Drivers and Barriers, go back to tighten up the list – consolidate duplicates and make sure statements are clear and concrete.
  6. Finally, identify which forces are probably the most powerful by rank ordering the top one or two on each side.

It may be counterintuitive, but the more powerful forces are the barriers. Leaders in particular tend to focus on driving the behaviors they want to see (e.g., they ask for collaboration by championing it). And while an organization does need something on the “driving” side, significant barriers will produce resistance in an organization that can render the driving forces ineffective.

The good news is these barriers can be addressed! A high calling to leaders is to engage a diverse group of stakeholders to identify the silo-forming barriers in their organization and take action to address them (e.g., rewrite job descriptions or modify incentive structures). A few small changes can go a long way in enabling a workforce to climb up the ladder to higher and more effective levels of collaboration.

Author
Headshot of Jeff Heil
Jeff Heil

Jeff Heil is an expert in the development and delivery of innovative learning experiences that accelerate team success and improve organization performance. He has a diverse background and education that comprises organizational psychology, industrial design and systems thinking, and has spent the last decade developing learning products that live at the practical intersection of these fields.

Jeff has been recognized as a teacher and leader in the field of systems thinking by the Waters Center for System Thinking and the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA). In May 2023, he delivered a standing-room only presentation titled “Playing with Metaphors for Optimal Learning” at the ATD (Association for Talent Development) International Conference & EXPO.

Jeff lives in Portland, Oregon where he is the CEO of Breakthrough Learning, a small firm that has provided innovative learning and development solutions to thousands of organizations across industries and cultures for more than 30 years.

Connect with Jeff on LinkedIn.

Recommended Webinar
The New Leader: Moving Beyond Silos to Optimize Performance

Learn how to overcome organizational silos and prepare for collective success in a complex world with tips to resolve collaboration blocks.

The New Leader: Moving Beyond Silos to Optimize Performance
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