Break Down Silos: Advice for Leaders from Their Teams

One of the most common challenges leaders cite is that their teams are stuck in silos and they want them to collaborate to be more competitive. But if those leaders really want teams to collaborate, they may be focusing on the wrong things. Spoiler alert: mandating stand–up meetings isn't going to change how people work together.
 
XPLANE just led a series of Silo-Smashing workshops with more than 100 people from dozens of organizations, and what we heard from them is that silos don't just fester and grow from the bottom up, they are usually built and sustained from the top down.
 
Here's what we heard in those sessions: Leaders talk about collaboration, but leadership teams often remain competitive or even combative. Functional leaders focus on different, and sometimes conflicting, priorities. Their KPIs are tied to metrics that often undermine collaboration. Few leaders can articulate or model what collaboration should look like.
 
Our sessions at Enterprise UX 2016 conference and XPLANE’s Visual Thinking School were populated with experienced professionals, most leading teams or projects in organizations of all sizes. And, while these sessions would have been different if we were working within a single organization, the collective advice from these sessions was remarkably consistent.
 
Most importantly, the groups believe that collaborative work is the only way to be agile, innovative, and fast in a world that is increasingly fast-paced and competitive.
 
Here are the six most important things that leaders could do to break down silos:

1. Set collaborative goals

People in functional silos are focused on functional goals. What they want is for organizations to set goals to include objectives that encourage teams to work together and priorities that are aligned.
 

2. Set clear expectations

Teams want to know what they are supposed to do, what success will look like, how they can work together, and how decisions will be made. We heard that while leaders talk a lot about what needs to get done, teams are often left to interpret what's been said and waste a lot of time figuring out what to do and how to do it.
 

3. Live it

Leaders have to demonstrate collaborative behavior in everything they do. Too often they compete with or even undermine others. Teams want to see their leaders work with other leaders effectively, contribute collaboratively, and support and share credit with other teams to build a collaborative culture.
 

4. Tie metrics to collective goals and teamwork

Rethink metrics and incentives to measure and reward teams for joint efforts and joint successes. Give them short-term reasons to begin working together, help them jointly celebrate those wins, and give them long-term reasons to keep working together.
 

5. Make structures and processes support teams

Don't ask teams to collaborate using the same structures and processes that allow silos to thrive. Encourage cross-functional teams to design new ways to work together and new ways to get things done.
 

6. Stick with it

Moving from silos to collaboration isn't like flipping a switch. In fact, collaboration requires a continued effort over weeks, months, and years. Too many leaders get distracted or disappointed and shift directions. To break silos, leadership needs to keep focused on the best ways for people to work across functions and the best ways to get things done.


Cynthia Owens is a Senior Consultant at XPLANE.

XPLANE's xBlog has been up and running since 1999. 

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