Change Blog

Silos are not for eternity

By Michael Timmermann, published on 10 July 2024


In an organization, a leader opposed any significant change and refused to take on a new role. His team aligned with him, perceiving any attempt at change as an attack on their identity. "Are we so bad that you have to abolish our way of working?" They drew closer together and entrenched themselves in their silo, without realizing they were harming the entire organization.

People tend to form "silos," meaning they gather in separate groups that don't truly collaborate across wider groups. According to "Dunbar's number", there's a limit to the number of relationships people can form, the maximum being 150. Any group larger than this tends to lose cohesion and form smaller silos.

People are drawn toward social groups with which they believe to have something positive in common, e.g.  "We are champions," "We are marketing," or "We are the Duckburg site." These common identification groups can also share more negative emotional states and perceptions, such as "We are sad and sometimes angry, because we are the victims." Silos can occur in this way, and an effective method to alleviate this is to identify a broader commonality, and thus form the common social group on a more abstract level of identification. For example, "We are marketing" becomes  "We are Company X."


Here are a couple of real-world scenarios from the Timmermann practice:

At an infrastructure company, IT subsidiaries with very different traditions, cultures, and areas of responsibility were merged into a higher-level federal company.

The new leadership was perceived as a threat, prompting them to draw closer together. The new leadership structure resulted in role changes for executives, which were perceived as a loss of significance. The pace, scope, and technical requirements overwhelmed the workforce, and many external experts were brought in, even for official leadership tasks. This made it more difficult to truly stay in touch with the "internal" staff. To cope with this situation, which was not sustainable for anyone in the long term, we co-created an experiential and in-depth team development process within the IT leadership team and gradually extended it to the levels below. A community of practice of IT team leaders ensures cross-silo exchange.

An inspiring and non-generic mission statement, developed collaboratively and transferred into practice through workshops, gives employees the opportunity to contribute themselves. Today, the silos are less pronounced, and constant mindfulness and measures ensure continuous improvement.

A stark contrast arose in the scenario at a commercial bank.

The long-standing thematic segmentation of the market department into 7 distinct sections resulted in minimal collaboration among them. Even at the executive level, there was a lack of motivation for exchange - in fact, the separate fiefdoms were seen in a positive light.

The inherently distinct responsibilities of the market and market follow-up teams created a sense of rivalry due to inadequate and occasionally ineffective communication. To address this issue, a strategic organizational decision was made to consolidate the market divisions and revamp the structure of the market follow-up departments to mirror the market teams.

We facilitated the essential cultural shift needed for a successful reorganization by fostering a shared identity during cross-departmental off-site gatherings and large group events involving all executives.

Daily interactions were encouraged by creating and nurturing a thriving community of departmental leaders focused on enhancing collaboration. This initiative, in turn, sparked inspiration for a team leadership community. Embracing the unified identity of being part of a singular bank was seen as empowering, eliminating the urge to seclude oneself within their own silo.

This much is clear:

The natural inclination to create silos is intrinsic to human behavior, yet poses a significant threat to organizational success. The ongoing battle against silo formation requires a unifying identity that resonates with common values and guides individuals towards a broader narrative, effectively breaking down silos and thwarting their emergence.

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