On visits home to rural Illinois, Phil S. Ensor would pass field after field, grain silo after grain silo, as he pondered the challenges of the modern workplace.
Though we cannot know his exact thoughts, we can imagine. Whether concrete or steel, silos appear impenetrable. Silos rise ominously from grain fields. More often than not, they are eerily silent. Put two or more silos side-by-side – one filled to capacity, the other drained empty – and they look exactly the same.
Unless we are inside (or at controls showing grain volume), we have no idea what is going on.
Therein lies the problem.
We can credit Ensor for the term, “functional silo syndrome,” which he coined in 1988. His insights helped many U.S. manufacturers see that strict departmental turf lines made them less creative, less competitive and less successful.
Ensor, who worked in organizational development and employee relations for what was then Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, was an advocate of building cross-functional teams and working groups. Although Ensor focused on manufacturing, “silo mentality” or “silo thinking,” as it is now known, affects the healthcare industry, IT enterprises and, of course, government.
It slows innovation in the broadest sense and gums up day-to-day operations, causing duplication of effort, confusion and frustration.
Is your organization afflicted? If departments, divisions, teams or pockets:
- Hoard information;
- Don’t collaborate with peers;
- Don’t trust “outsiders;”
- See other internal groups – rather than external competitors – as the competition; or
- Identify with the group, not the organization
You’ve got a problem.
Silos aren’t erected overnight; nor are they quickly dismantled. Thinking about companies as systems rather than a collection of silos is one place to start. “Systems thinking” is more holistic and recognizes how the parts interconnect and serve, or disserve, each other.
In an organization that values systems thinking, people:
- Share good ideas;
- Celebrate and recognize success;
- Keep friendly competition friendly;
- Create, innovate, and take responsible risks;
- Like and trust each other.
That is a partial list from the folks at Second City Communications, the corporate division of the stellar improv theater company, The Second City. The group also suggests at healthy organizations, “there is a is noisy exuberance and a spirit of play evident, and people spend their energy undermining the competition, not each other.”
Second City uses improvisation-based methods to help organizations break down internal walls.
Chances are, there are walls. Even if you don’t see them.