Machiavelli predicted business silos in 1513, but that doesn’t mean you have to be resigned to them

Check this out, via Harvard Business Review. Here’s a quote. Read it and then let’s talk context:

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success nor dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarm-ness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor, and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who does not truly believe in anything new until they have had experience of it.

As you can see in my blog headline, this quote is from 1513. That’s, uh, a while ago (501 years ago, to be exact). That quote is mostly about focusing on what already works than actually getting pumped about what could happen (damn, I’m using italics in a liberal way here), but it goes back to a simple idea you hear all the time on employee surveys: silos. Essentially, marketing doesn’t talk to finance, and HR doesn’t talk to IT, and so on and so forth — so when new things happen (or even old things evolve), information is inherently incomplete. First things first: this situation is literally impossible to solve. Humans are humans; they have different lives and different styles and different flaws. (Probably the best thing you can do in a work setting is to understand that straight-away and realize that getting to Deliverable A can potentially follow 12 different routes, not just yours.)

In the HBR article, they talk about the two main ways to break down silos at work as “create a compelling innovation agenda” and “have a fully-aligned strategic agenda.” The former part sounds legitimate; the latter part can tend to sound like bullshit. No one really knows what a “fully-aligned strategic agenda” is, for the most part; good leaders are often straight-up transparent about what they need, instead of couching it in buzz-concepts. “We need to make money this quarter.” “We need to get more users.” “We need to sign up more students.” Whatever it is.

A lot of this relates back to “change management” — if you Google that term, there’s a little over a billion results, which isn’t surprising. People always want to change a culture or a system if they think something isn’t working, and change is only (cliche alert) probably the only constant in most working environments anymore. So it all begs the question: if we’ve been dealing with issues like this in society since the 1500s, how exactly do you break down silos in a workplace tangibly?

This post has some good starting points. Consider:

Silos occur naturally because of the way organizations are structured. Each part of a company reports up to a manager who has responsibility only for that part of the company. But none of the parts is truly independent. Each relies on others to perform its function, and the company performs well only when each of these sometimes many parts or units work closely together.

Concur. So the first thing I would say is … don’t actually try to eliminate silos. Ideas about the future of work are awesome, but people also need to feel comfortable and logical in the space they’re in. You can’t demand too much, or a revolutionary concept, of people that just want to do the job they believe they were hired to do. (You should expect them to be able to handle change, but not drastic, shifting organizational change, per se. Humans can adapt to that, but it’s not easy, hence the billion searches around change management.)

The second thing I would say is … leaders have to lead. That’s pretty self-explanatory, but be transparent, be upfront, be timely, etc. The worst thing ever is when something happens in an organization, however large or small, and the bulk of the execution-level employees are finding out about it four-five weeks later. That honestly can seem disrespectful as a whole.

The third thing I would say is … actually hire good communicators. There’s a major fundamental difference between “a good professional communicator” and “a good communicator,” because people often over-focus on the front end — i.e. people that can write the type of compliance-happy e-mail or memo that bosses love. The problem is, those memos/e-mails almost never match up with basic human theory of how a person contextualizes and processes information. If you’re serious about information flow being legitimate, what you should do is hire someone that can write to people well and train him/her on the professional nuance that he/she may need. Construing all communications employees as basically PR will get you incomplete, imperfect information flow basically 92 times out of 100.

The fourth thing I would say? Just continue to understand that it’s important for people to feel in control of their own area, and by extension, it’s important for them to hear themselves say, “Well, Johnny over in accounting just doesn’t understand what we do over here!” Even if you’re successful at reducing the idea of silos, you’re still going to hear those types of comments. Why? That’s basically human nature. It’s in-group/out-group, which is essentially how we structure our entire existence in a way. It’s not going to change, and especially not at work.

Here are some other ideas, including cross-departmental teams / action committees / sharing data across departments (that last one is a good idea, so long as the data is understood). Here are still more ideas, focusing more on motivation and collaboration (again, all good ideas). Here are even more ideas, this time related back to Scotland; in that link, you’ll see ideas around “being radical.” Cool. All of these things are excellent and should be pursued; the most important thing, though, is to understand the context of your own organization. What’s the ultimate point/goal/value proposition? Who are your people and what are their strengths/flaws? What motivates them and what discourages them? How do they respond to e-mail/conference calls/meetings/agendas? If you have an idea around those things, you can shape programs and communications that may reduce silos — notice the key isn’t to eliminate them, because they provide consistency, comfort, and tracking ability/oversight that are all very valuable.

I’m not any kind of amazing business professional (by any stretch), but I do find this stuff interesting and clearly others do well, just by volume of content around it. If you want to change the “silo culture,” start with understanding why it actually must be there, then build out from there — how could we fix it and what would it look like if it were better? Change for the sake of change is dumb too. And then, yes, you do need someone to write/craft things for you who actually understands how people receive, contextualize and act on information — and that person is often not the polished PR professional you think you’re looking for.


Ted Bauer

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