What does working in (organisational) silos mean?

If you aren’t sure whether your company is operating within silos, then somebody else probably is, and they’re going to take advantage of you real soon.

In this article, you’ll learn what working in silos means, why it happens and why it causes so much damage.

What is meant by working in silos?

The term “silo” comes from the ancient Greek term siros, which literally means “corn pit.” Today, the word is used by the agricultural industry to describe large metal vats that contain bulk materials like grain and other food products.

“So how in the name of Old Macdonald does this term relate to my business?” I hear you say.

Well, it’s quite obvious when you cross-compare a picture of a row of silos, stood abreast, to the organisational flow chart of a siloed company:

No items found.

As you can see, in both images, there’s little interaction between the separate channels (of course, one would expect nothing less of the insentient metal towers—I’m referring, more specifically, to the flowchart).

When an organisation is working in silos, departments are operating independently, concerned only with their internal challenges rather than those of the organisation as a whole. This could be because of physical constraints or myopic states of mind.

So, what does working in silos mean in regard to your business? Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s a “‘System, process, department, etc. that operates in isolation from others.”

What causes organisational silos?

The human race, particularly western culture, loves to compartmentalise. The world is so complex that the only way we can make any sense of it is by subdividing everything to a granular level.

This approach has enabled us to overcome phenomenal challenges. We’ve landed on the moon, invented the vaccine and built passenger aircraft that can take us to the other side of the world in less than 24 hours. 

A silo mindset can be useful, it allows us to take apart extremely complex challenges and find innovative solutions.

It makes sense, then, that organisations would adopt this method to achieve their mission. And because larger organisations are more complex, they’re much more likely to establish silo-like tendencies. They create job-specific departments with specific functions in an attempt to create structure, encourage autonomy and delegate tasks.

How does a silo mentality develop?

A silos mindset develops as executives attempt to find order amidst the chaos. But organisational silos can also occur as a result of turf battles and excessive competitiveness between departments, or because the systems and communication tools aren’t capable of facilitating open dialogue.

Another cause of organisational silos is negligence. Many managers and top executives believe that if you toss enough talented people into a room, magic will happen. 

This simply isn't the case.

A team’s effectiveness is determined by its ability to unite towards a shared goal.

Matt Eng, the UX design leader at ResMed, touched on this during his TEDx talk about teamwork. He said:

“Where I work, we’re traditionalists. We think in skillsets. ‘Pair this visual designer with this design researcher, point them towards the right goal and you have the best team ever.’ We know this is not true.” (Eng, 2018)

Eng understood that an effective team is as much about cohesive personalities as it is about individual talent. Company offsite retreats like those offered by Surf Office, have gained notoriety as an effective way to develop interpersonal relationships, boost employee engagement and more. 

A recent survey by Robert Half Talent Solutions found increasing teamwork and morale to be the top benefit of corporate offsite retreats.

Why are organisational silos bad?

A silo mentality causes countless workplace issues. The following list details just some issues that silos in the workplace can lead to:

Effective teamwork and collaboration are essential for your company’s long-term viability. They are needed to drive the innovation efforts that will keep you ahead of competitors and fend off disruptive startups. This advantage is significantly weakened with a silo mindset.

Dr Gillian Tett, the author of The Silo Effect, made the following observation about silo mentalities: “Many large organizations are divided, and then subdivided into numerous different departments which often fail to talk to each other—let alone collaborate.” (Tett, 2016)

Working in silos causes departments to develop tunnel vision. They operate within an egocentric bubble, employees start fighting for resources and decisions are made without considering the implications for the broader company vision.

How do you know if your organisation is operating within silos?

If your company is experiencing any of the following symptoms, it might be because you’ve developed a nasty case of “the silos”:

Ignoring these symptoms and hoping they’ll disappear is a recipe for failure. Let’s take a quick look at two companies that have achieved success by consciously improving interdepartmental relationships.

How Facebook and Pixar keep organisational silos at bay

One of the reasons for Facebook’s long-lasting dominance has been its refusal to succumb to a silo mentality. 

During an interview with Joe Rogan, former Product Manager at Facebook Antonio Garcia Martinez admitted that Facebook displayed cult-like tendencies. 

Say what you like about cults, but they certainly know how to unite around a common cause.

According to Martinez, Zuckerberg himself was renowned for his Ceaser-Esque motivational speeches (a somewhat surprising display of extroversion, one could say) that would rally the team to his cause. As a result of these speeches, “Google+ must be destroyed” emerged as a popular phrase among Facebook employees as they defended against Google’s usurpation.

Pixar, too, has made substantial efforts to inoculate itself against silo-ism, going so far as enlisting Steve Jobs to redesign its headquarters to maximise chance encounters and collaborative interactions.

Next step: learn how to avoid organisational silos

Now that you understand exactly what organisational silos are and how to identify them, all that’s left is to eliminate them and keep them at bay.

In our next article, 7 Ways to avoid organisational silos, you’ll learn how to avoid organisational silos. 

(Hint: you can start by organising a team-building retreat).

No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
budget retreat spreadsheet

Retreat Budget Spreadsheet

Are you organising a company retreat and want to make sure you have all the costs under the control?

Get a copy of our free Budget Calculator spreadsheet.

Get a copy

Interviews with more “newly-remote” companies:

How digital product studio Pixelmatters transformed from office to remote

How digital product studio Pixelmatters transformed from office to remote

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that large companies like Twitter, Shopify and Slack are “going remote”. And recently, we’re hearing more and more stories about smaller companies, startups, and digital agencies doing the same. What were their motivations? What challenges do they face during this transition? How do they see their future? We…

How a proptech startup REalyse switched from a London office to remote work

How a proptech startup REalyse switched from a London office to remote work

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that large companies like Twitter, Shopify and Slack are “going remote”. And recently, we’re hearing more and more stories about smaller companies, startups, and digital agencies doing the same. What were their motivations? What challenges do they face during this transition? How do they see their future? We…

CPJ’s journey into remote work

CPJ’s journey into remote work

During these times, many companies are switching to remote work. You may have heard that large companies, like Twitter, Shopify, and Slack are doing so, but we’re also seeing this shift with smaller companies, startups, and digital agencies as well. Perhaps this transition was already in the pipeline, or maybe COVID-19 was the catalyst. Either…

From the office to remote: Real.Digital chooses quality over the location

From the office to remote: Real.Digital chooses quality over the location

Around mid-August of this year Real.Digital announced that they will be operating as a remote first company from now on.They might not be affected by the COVID-19 in economic terms, but the decision to shift their work practices was still a significant one. Fortunately, they’re viewing it as a great opportunity to open up their talent pool to people from all over the world!

FREE COURSE

How to plan your first company retreat

Get for free

With knowledge collected from:

free course partners logos