A Revealing Look at the Impact of Enterprise Silos

January 4, 2016Articles, News, Social Business

For years I worked in siloed environments. I’m sure we all have.

But back then, I’m not sure we really knew what “silo” meant. We do now. I looked up this definitiontoday:

  1. a horizontal container, or tower, often cylindrical in shape
  2. a strengthened underground position in which missile systems are sited for protection against attack

By definition, then, silos are not a bad thing. In fact, the strength of one team can come from having a shared purpose they’re willing to protect; a mission that allows each person to feel they are contributing to that common goal. When everyone is aligned it’s an amazing feeling; they are motivated to keep the group tighter than ever – and the goal becomes that much more attainable.

However, within organizations those independent teams – no matter how well aligned they are internally – can become ­those long cylindrical shaped towers. They become impenetrable “underground positions” so fortified that no one outside is invited in – including the business teams they were meant to serve, or support.

So – far too often — we all stand alone.

An Awesome Silo

That was certainly the case in my work at a credit card division of a prestigious bank. In an emerging group started in the early 2000s, we had one goal: leverage the Internet to drive acquisition and retention opportunities.

We were green. Not one of us had any real experience on the web.

Silos can become impenetrable “underground positions” so fortified that no one outside is invited in – including the business teams they were meant to serve, or support.

We did, however, have a shared excitement about our mission – and our collective potential. This enthusiasm resulted in endless hours of ideation, testing and discovery. We all clicked, we came together to share what we discovered. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my lifetime.

We were, in hindsight, a highly motivated – and incredibly creative – silo.

When it was time, we brought in the various product groups – our internal customers – to understand their existing processes. A short time later, we presented our ideas and approach to our division’s Executive Team. Among glowing comments, we received resounding approval to begin developing our capabilities. It was clear: our team – our silo – was doing important work.

When Silos Collide

That’s when we approached the bank’s central team: the online banking division. To implement our work throughout the bank’s infrastructure, final approvals had to go through them.

Countless meetings were had to scrutinize the approach for the build. The central team was concerned about compliance, security, concern over third-party sites that needed to be part of this integration, and much more.

We anticipated many of their concerns had run appropriate contingency scenarios through our own division’s Portfolio Management team. With each objection, we worked hard to improve our offering and create new solutions. Ultimately, we answered all their questions. Every time.

We were, in hindsight, a highly motivated – and incredibly creative – silo.

But more questions came. And more concerns. And barriers to adoption. Many months went by before they were convinced this initiative was even feasible, let alone the game-changing corporate asset we dreamed it would be.

Their silo didn’t work like our silo; instead of looking at the possibilities, they looked at the problems.

Over time, we discovered that prioritization for our work still needed to be negotiated. Despite the approval of the Executive Team, other projects and divisions were given priority by the central office. Our team, and our work, were left in the queue – effectively on terminal hold status.

Suddenly, it was clear: our potential may never be realized – our initiative never adopted. The very organization – the family we were built to support – failed us, widening the rift that already existed between our divisions.

Our silo – once so open, inspiring and active – deepened. We retreated to protect our position from ongoing attack.

Suddenly, it was clear: our potential may never be realized – our initiative never adopted. The very organization – the family we were built to support – failed us.

A Happy Ending, Silo Style

The team rallied. On their own, but with the support of the Executive Team, they built a working system to properly receive, track and measure online initiatives. They were able to gain some quick wins. No, the group was not as agile, creative or collaborative as our dream team had set out to be – but the team crossed the finish line.

By this time, I had long left the bank. I did not stick around to see this happen. I didn’t have the patience to do so. But the end result – despite the dramatically modified expectations – made us all happy.

Years later, this article summarized my experience:

“When employees interact poorly with people outside of their ‘silo,’ it becomes difficult to do the work of the business. A tight-knit department that works well together can be a plus for a business. However, organizational silos can be like fortresses within a company and eventually cause serious problems that might not be noticed until the damage is done.”

While I wasn’t able to move mountains when I was there, I was able to introduce ideas that made people think differently. I was able to convince people over time that this would increase opportunities. I helped build the amazing trust that existed within our division. I helped insulate us – protect us – from the culture of the overall bank. And we did good work.

Inspired by what happened at that bank, and by seeing so many friends and colleagues go through similar passion-draining work conditions, I now focus on breaking down these silos. I ask “Why?” “Why not?” and “What if?” – and I motivate others to do the same. Because only when we get answers to those questions are we able to remove the poison that enables toxic silos and stifles our organizations.

And only then will our collective potential be realized.

 

This article originally appeared on Switch & Shift

Hannah Kovacs

Author: Hannah Kovacs

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