Breaking down the silo walls

Many businesses are structured into departments which have objectives and targets. There’s a common failure when cross-departmental links are not as strong as they could be, and instead departmental managers and their teams focus on their individual objectives and neglect the greater good of the organisation as a whole.

There’s an extreme example in my own career history. Many years ago my appointment as Managing Director of a division was announced and shortly after the announcement a colleague who was the MD of a different division rang me. Steve congratulated me, and then said “let battle commence” I was somewhat shocked – after all, we both worked for the same parent company. I’d have expected the friendly rivalry to see who could get the best scorecard for the year, but not an all-out battle!

Steve didn’t stay in his role very long, but when you looked at the measurement used to assess his (and my) performance, there was nothing to encourage mutual cooperation.

This approach is often known as operating in silos. Everything is contained within the silo, nothing in the outside world impacts on the silo.

What you actually need is cross-departmental functionality, and one methodology to break down any barriers is to have teams comprised of members from different departments with a cross-business remit. The team is responsible for something that affects everyone – perhaps organising a social event, or looking after the canteen, or making some minor improvements to the working environment. They’ll need a budget, and be empowered to get on and make changes.

You can help prevent the barriers coming into existence if you are careful with departmental objectives but also by reminding managers that they have internal customers, and if you don’t meet the needs of the internal customer the business won’t meet the needs of its external customers.

Finally, if you have an area of friction between two departments it can help if there is a “bridge” position between the two – someone employed to carry out duties that straddle both. That position has reporting lines to the two departmental managers in what is known as a matrix structure.

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