Successful Teams Leave the Silos on the Farm


Where are silos holding your organization back?

If you’ve ever worked in an organization larger than 20 people, you’ve probably encountered organizational silos of one form or another.  Functional silos are common early in a company’s development, followed later by product, division or geographical silos, undermining teams.  Whenever humans congregate in numbers larger than 5, we tend to form factions.  We have an innate need to differentiate ourselves from others, and as a result, we create an “us vs. them” mentality.   In corporations, we actually encourage this when we set up competing measures for different groups.  For example, one company measures sales on revenue, and finance on receivables’ days outstanding – sales brings
in the customer, and finance chases the customer to get them to pay.  Sometimes this works out well, but at other times, the two functions work at cross-purposes, frustrating one another and wasting time on non-value-added activities.

As fearless leaders, part of your job is to bring together groups of people to contribute their best capabilities to make a team stronger than the sum of its members.  Unfortunately, organizational silos make this harder to do.  Some companies encourage “internal competition” for resources, customers or ideas.  The justification is that competition drives higher performance as the desire to win overcomes artificial barriers to performance.  While there are individuals who thrive on competition, high-performance teams are focused on external competition or beating a personal best or goal, not on beating the manager down the hall or the division across the country.  Fearless leaders know how to discourage this silo mentality and create better teams in doing so.

To understand how this works, you need to know two basic things about teams:

  1. Diversity builds stronger teams.  In organizations, we often talk about diversity in terms of gender, race, ethnicity or other broad markers of difference.  This is a very valuable form of diversity, but true diversity on a team goes farther than this to the kinds of diversity that aren’t always visible. Imagine a football team where every player is a star quarterback.  Or a soccer team made up of goalkeepers.  Clearly these skills are valuable, but not sufficient to make a winning sports team. Why then, do we build product development teams only with engineers, and launch teams with only salespeople, or management teams with Drivers, and research teams with Analyticals?
    While there are skills and preferences that lend themselves more to one task than another, a good mix of skills helps a team think more broadly about the implications of their work, brings diverse stakeholders into the picture, allows the team to get the details right, and enables effective communication back out from the team.  No one individual or type of person can be as skilled in all these areas as a team of strong individuals who each carry specific talents. Look for different personality types, different perspectives, different bases of knowledge, and different levels and realms of experience.  Your team will be better for it.
  2. The best teams trust one another.  All that diversity can make it hard to really understand the other members of the team.  Each of us tends to believe that people “like us” are right, and that people who do things differently are not.  The challenge in building strong teams is helping each team member see beyond the differences and identify the underlying common goals and the ways in which diverse points of view, and even a little healthy conflict help achieve those goals.  To do this effectively you need to have clear roles on the team, broad sharing of information, clear big picture goals and a high level of communication and listening skills in the team. One of the key benefits of building team trust is in improving efficiency and effectiveness at getting the work done.  Teammates who trust one another to be working in the group’s best interests don’t second guess one another or leave a clear document trail in order to justify their actions.  They know that the team has their back and that the team succeeds together.

If you really want to build successful teams, successful companies, successful organizations of any kind, you need to understand that silos are natural and the job of leadership is building bridges and trust on the team.  Next time we’ll talk about factors that make building a team harder, and how to overcome them.