Nice silo — now, how do we get out?

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
January 12, 2024
A graphic with a yellow background and black text that reads 'Break down silos'
Nice silo — now, how do we get out?
Written by 
Jim Kalbach
January 12, 2024

“Break down the silos” is a rallying cry you’ll hear in many organizations. It’s a call for working better together across teams and functions. 

A “silo,” of course, is a metaphor borrowed from grain storage. In farming, silos are quite ironically a Good Thing™ and very much desired: Each container intentionally holds one specific type of grain to avoid mixing them inadvertently, which can cause serious spoilage issues.

In enterprises (and Apple TV series), the opposite is true: Silos are generally detrimental to information sharing and decision-making, particularly in knowledge worker-driven organizations. Silos prevent the cross-pollination of ideas between functions, which typically results in better innovation and enhanced customer experiences. 

To understand where corporate silos came from, we’d have to go back to the division of labor and, more importantly, the org chart. 

The earliest org charts date back to the 19th century when Daniel McCallum, a Scottish-born railroad engineer, needed a way to manage a rapidly growing organization. His solution: divide the company up into functions. He even labeled his org chart as a “Diagram representing a plan of organization exhibiting the division of administrative duties and showing the number and class of employees engaged in each department from the returns of September 1855.”

McCallum’s chart showing main organizational branches, or functional silos (U.S. Public Domain)

And so, silos — in the business context — were born. Now, how do you get out? 

Teamwork suffers from silos

“Just collaborate across teams” is the general recommendation you’ll hear. But it’s harder than you might think. Teams struggle to reach out across the aisle. Organizational silos create friction and misalignment — leading to isolated teams and ideas. They're detrimental to teamwork across functions. 

In our investigation into team autonomy, for instance, we found that small teams generally see themselves as being very autonomous. The problem comes when a challenge they have to solve crosses boundaries. Real operational barriers come into play: How do you get a team in a different part of the business to take responsibility for a shared challenge? How does the team come together? What departmental goals are reached by solving a cross-silo issue? Who leads the effort? And many more potentially daunting issues arise. 

'Siloization' is even more of a challenge in a distributed post-pandemic world. Chance encounters with someone from a different function are rarer. Instead, cross-team collaboration needs to be focused and intentional. 

This is a real barrier to effective teamwork. In our Mural survey, “no alignment across teams” was the second most significant obstacle to effective collaboration.

On the other hand, solving for cross-functional collaboration has huge benefits. A report by Asana showed that successful cross-functional collaboration correlates directly to revenue growth. 

7 ways to overcome the silo problem at your company

So, what can be done? In modern, post-pandemic organizations, siloization can be overcome in several ways: 

1. Institute common collaboration methods

Having a set of agreed practices for collaboration across the organization is needed more now than ever to provide a common language for teams to work from rather than improvising with each interaction. 

2. Make it feel safe

Teams have to feel safe in reaching out to coworkers in other parts of the organization. If they fear backlash or reprimand by taking action, cross-team interaction is bottlenecked by leader permission or shut down entirely. 

Related: Psychological safety: a critical element for imagination work

3. Hire for cross-functional collaboration

When hiring new employees, ask about how they’ve reached across the aisle. Seek candidates who can empathize with other roles and operate in different contexts. Check their backgrounds for having worked in a variety of roles and departments. 

4. Reward cross-team collaboration

Often, departmental goals and objectives tend to prevent cross-functional collaboration. Under pressure to produce results against their own KPIs, managers are motivated to have their teams focus only on work that furthers their team mission. 

Related: 4 best practices for better cross-functional alignment

5. Set up cross-team learning programs

Exchange programs and even informal mentoring can help make connections across the aisle. It’s not only about getting to know each other personally but understanding different workflows and sub-cultures within an organization. Empathy for other teams goes a long way in breaking silos. 

6. Employ tools and create spaces that invite cross-team work

Modern cloud-based collaboration tools can open doors for collaboration. If there is friction or barriers to accessing tools, collaboration suffers. But mandatory in-office days won't solve the collaboration problem. Tools need to be used deliberately to be effective. Additionally, emerging capabilities like VR can also offer the potential of connecting teams, particularly across distances. VR-driven workspaces could help reframe the way silos currently limit teamwork.  

7. Demonstrate cross-functional leadership

Ultimately, cross-team collaboration comes down to leadership issues. If executives are aligned and committed to cross-team collaboration and if they show that it’s valued, people will be more likely to break the silos. If leaders are competitive and protective of their teams and team results, collaboration will remain disconnected, leading to poor behavior. Just consider teams at Volkswagen doctoring emissions records or Wells Fargo employees opening fake customer accounts all in the name of local advancement without regard for the bigger organizational mission. 

Related: 8 cross-functional collaboration frameworks for teams

Beyond silos: a whole new paradigm?

The functional nature of typical organizational management reinforces them. Silos are, in a way, a normal part of corporate culture. As soon as you have an organization with more than about 150 people in it, divisions will naturally occur. 

The Rule of 150, or Dunbar's Number, is a suggestion that there is an upper limit to the number of connections humans can make before communication and relationships break down. As a company scales and grows, it becomes increasingly tricky to maintain good communication and connections between people and teams.

Alternative models do exist. Frameworks like holacracy seek to weaken or eliminate the normal patterns of hierarchical organization. A holacracy is based on decentralized management and organizational governance. Authority and decision-making are distributed throughout the organization rather than placed on a management hierarchy.

Transforming work at Zappos

Zappos is an example of such an organization that embraces holacracy. Around 2014, CEO Tony Hsieh moved‌ the company towards a decentralized management and decision-making style. Rather than following a pyramid structure, the company is organized into interlocking circles of work. 

From here, we can start to imagine a whole new form of organizations. Frederick Laloux’s landmark book, Reinventing Organizations, details how some companies have already moved beyond traditional silo-centric organizations with division of labor across org charts. 

After comparing different organizational paradigms through the ages, Laloux proposes a new structure: the Teal organization, or self-managing organizations. This contrasts "red," "amber," "orange," and "green" organizations, which, according to Laloux, are based on hierarchies, meritocracy, or consensus decisions. Teal organizations, in contrast, are based on concepts of "wholeness," worker "self-awareness," and an "evolutionary purpose,” much like a living organism.

Teal organizations aren't fictitious. Examples include Buurtzorg, a 14,000-person health care company in the Netherlands; Morning Star Co., one of the largest tomato processing operations in California; and Patagonia, the outdoor wear manufacturer.

Both holacracies and Teal organizations aren't without their challenges. Reports show that work is sometimes chaotic at Zappos, for instance. Still, they offer a glimpse of a completely different paradigm, one in which silos aren't the default byproduct of hierarchical management structures. 

Most companies won't be moving to holacracy or becoming a Teal organization anytime soon. The challenge for most of us, then, isn't about removing silos per se as much as it’s about how to work across them. With the right tools and methods in place, silos don’t have to be the norm — instead, we can redefine the work experience and tailor it to meet the needs of our organizations, from top to bottom. 

That’s what can happen when you approach work based on what actually… works. 

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.