Posted by Shivali Anand
May 14, 2021 | 7-minute read (1399 words)
Innovation requires thinking outside the box, allowing people to look where others haven’t and possibly come up with something extraordinary. This is also true within an organizational structure. By letting employees brainstorm and think creatively, you give them the chance to devise solutions that could change the course of your business. The only requirements are to give them permission to use their imagination and to support their innovative ideas.
The silo mentality, deconstructed
In the business world, silos are used as a metaphor to describe the attitude of an organization or department that refuses to share information with employees from other departments. This mindset causes inefficiency and contributes to a toxic culture that can build resentment and hurt productivity. Nevertheless, the silo mentality is a common problem within many businesses.
According to organizational psychologists, the silo approach is usually the consequence of a series of unintentional missteps made by key members of the organization’s hierarchy. But sometimes the silos are deliberately set up by narrow-minded managers who have little interest in sharing information and ideas across departments. Perhaps a clash of egos causes them to lose perspective, spurring employees to prioritize competition through silos rather than communication and collaboration.
Regardless of the cause, the result is predictable. Communication channels constrict and if left unchecked may shut completely. The necessary flow of information is throttled as people’s loyalty shifts to “their” camp rather than thinking of the bigger purpose of the organization. Trust and morale wane as employees uncomfortably follow the lead of management and stick within the invisible boundaries.
What is a no silo workplace?
The "no silo" rule is a management term that emphasizes the decentralization of information. A silo in the workplace is viewed as any artificial barrier to communication among individuals and departments. Under the no silo approach, innovation and creativity are believed to be supported when information flows freely and inhibited when silos are erected to choke off communication. Many of the most admired and wildly successful companies of our time have been led by CEOs who adapted the philosophy, as we explain below.
How leaders can implement the no silo rule
To counteract the construction of silos, encourage company leaders to see the big picture. They must be made mindful of the importance of not getting caught up in their own careers or departments to the extent that they lose perspective of the company as a whole. You can still support individual team members in their careers, like Steve Jobs famously did at Apple. But you also need to think like Mark Zuckerberg in terms of encouraging leadership at every level of your business.
For example, when assembling a team for a project, assign members from different departments to promote the sharing of information. One person might be assigned to work on the marketing campaign, while another is in charge of product design, and they likely would not otherwise have ever met. Or if it's a marketing project, consider including at least one member each from your product, design, finance and operations departments, illustrating no silos in action.
Ensure that employees are encouraged to move among departments by offering a variety of cross-training opportunities. Create feedback loops that ensure that every employee understands how their work affects the larger company. Efforts like these help members of the company to think more critically, to understand how their efforts affect one another and to develop ways to use resources in one area to solve problems in another.
Management experts also advise that if you encounter a particularly difficult problem that you share it with the team rather than hiding the truth. Ask for help. Solicit suggestions from people who work outside of your department so you can draw from their experiences. Multiple ideas and perspectives will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the problem and in turn spark more innovative thinking and solutions.
Of course, the no silos rule only works if every single employee participates. So, make sure that not only company leaders but also rank-and-file employees buy into the rule. Be sure to reward those who do great work and those who help other people do great work to convey the importance of shared efforts. Remind employees that the company's prosperity hinges to a large extent on employee collaboration, and that it is important they see their colleagues as teammates with a joint purpose.
These two world-famous CEOs didn’t believe in silos:
- Elon Musk: There are many Silicon Valley success stories that demonstrate the importance of vision, perseverance and native curiosity. And one of the foremost is Tesla. As the brainchild of acclaimed inventor and CEO Elon Musk, since day one Tesla has followed a no-silo rule in which employees are expected to talk with one other. The company’s culture views compartmentalization of information as harmful.
Few people are aware that early on, Musk sent an email to all Tesla employees reminding them to "not silo" their work and to do their jobs as a team. This simple message helped Tesla become one of the most successful, cutting-edge car manufacturers in the world. In July 2020, Tesla overtook Toyota to become the most valuable car company in the world, with an estimated value of $208 billion. How could a small upstart company like Tesla gain massive market share from competitors so quickly?
Surely the no silo rule Musk implemented at Tesla deserves some of the credit. As CEO, he encourages employees to reach out to him any time. He maintains that for the company to stay connected and solve problems quickly, open communication extends all the way to the CEO. Musk also advises all staff to speak with anyone else in the company they think can help, making it clear there is no need to seek permission from a manager to do.
- Steve Jobs: In the early 2000s, Steve Jobs implemented the no silo approach at Apple, aptly dubbing it the “No Silo” rule. This strategy is widely believed to have helped Apple beat Sony in the personal music player market with a then-new product called the iPod.
Long before other tech giants, Jobs chose the no silo approach for his organizational structure. Jobs said he chose the approach in an effort to avoid creating artificial boundaries among groups of people. To that end, rather than sorting Apple employees into semi-autonomous divisions, he tightly controlled all of his teams while simultaneously pushing them to work as a unified organization.
What happens when a company is siloed?
Nokia, once viewed as a leader in the mobile phone industry, exhibited a rapid decline that began from within and led the company to effectively surrendered its market-leading position in 2013. Observers say a series of poor decisions among a small cadre of insular leaders caused its fall. Other problems that reportedly plagued the company were a bad corporate culture that included rivalry among divisions. In other words, many of its problems stemmed from its siloed culture.
How to counter silos in your business
- Openly encourage the no silos principle and reinforce that every level of management works for the company's common interests. Think like Elon Musk. Communicate that as a company, you are united and better than those that compete internally.
- Take a cue from Steve Jobs. Share work and tackle problems together to gain a true understanding of how to improve the efficiency of your whole company.
- Assign roles to team members at the start of projects to avoid conflict. Try to pull in at least some members across departments.
- Cross-train employees so they are versed in broad skills. Give each team member opportunities to learn different parts of the business. Help them understand their part in the company's long-term success and to see that the entire organization is working toward collective goals.
- If you or a teammate has a tough problem, talk about it. Ask experts outside your department for advice. Your colleagues may offer insights you never considered.
- No silos, no problem. But make sure that every leader in the company is setting a no-silo example or it won't work.
- Don’t overlook the people who supported you on the way up. Your high performance is a result of a team effort. A thank you to everyone who contributed to your achievement is an excellent way to build camaraderie.