How to Break Down Silos in Your Company by Building Lanes
Silos don't just slow down business processes; they can harm a company's overall health.
When growing a company, the difference between building lanes and creating silos comes to dollars and cents. Think about how a lane on a highway serves the cars and traffic flow — lanes speed things up. Silos, on the other hand, are stationary and defensive. We use them on farms for storing grain. Silos slow things down.
Poor company communication leads to unmet needs and expectations, unhappy clients and employees and higher churn rates and turnover. Effective communication, on the other hand, speeds up the time required to achieve a goal. As the world grows increasingly global and digital, fluid communication becomes an essential competitive advantage. The sooner leaders aim to break down silos and create an organization full of lanes, the better.
Silos are for storage
While storing grain in silos is helpful on a farm, storing information in silos can be dangerous for a business. Silos can naturally form between independently operating departments, sub-departments or even among a few people, but they can also develop through a protective and competitive mentality. Just as siloes defend their stores of cow feed against the scarcity of winter, people in a company can guard their information against others because they think sharing it weakens their power.
After the dot-com crash, I joined a new company, and in my first week, I gave my first pink slip. Soon, they started calling me the "Dark Queen of Fiber." It was horrible. The people we laid off had done nothing wrong, but the company was failing, and we were trying to survive. I tried to be as transparent as possible, but we just didn't know how many people would come out in the end still having jobs. Very quickly, those who remained started to get siloed. They felt the need to protect their information because they felt if they gave it up, the company could figure out how to go on without them.
This scarcity mindset around information leaves parts of the company with inaccurate or out-of-date information. Poor cross-departmental communication inhibits a productive workflow. Decision-makers who fail to address the silos in a company, or perpetuate them, can frustrate their employees who recognize the problem and feel powerless to stop it, damaging employee morale. Siloes introduce operational efficiencies that a company passes on to its customers, negatively impacting the value it provides and eventually hurting its bottom line.
Lanes are for movement
Think back to when lanes cleared the overgrowth of the undeveloped countryside and broadened the local knowledge and sphere of influence. Paving those lanes brought more progress faster — transportation, commerce and more global culture. Lanes are about sharing. The better the lanes, the easier sharing becomes. From a business standpoint, lanes create a means by which information can flow.
After one part of the company was sold, the part I was left to run was full of those silos I had created during my reign of layoffs. I was unsure how much to share about the direction we would take moving forward until I overheard two colleagues talking in the restroom about the company's future: "I don't know what's going to happen, but I trust Cheri to look out for us." That trust inspired me to try again, provide abundant information about the company's new direction, and rebuild with the culture it needed, full of open lanes of communication.
To create lanes, everyone in the company needs to trust in the free, open and safe transparency of information. Lanes don't necessarily have to be serial handoffs from one person to the next. Still, they should enable individuals to find the information they need or the right person to ask for the appropriate answers. Creating lanes means building a culture where people expect transparent and accessible communication and trust that everyone responsible will appreciate their questions and be eager to help.
If you build them, lanes will come
To break up siloes and reframe a scarcity mindset into one of an abundance of information, find out why people are unwilling or unable to share. In my case, a lack of trust threatened to keep the company siloed. The previous company was falling apart, and creating lanes would have likely done little to change that, but once we started over and re-established a new sense of trust, I re-engaged open lanes of communication. The remains of that failed company became Clearfield — successful today because we worked to build lanes, improve communication and keep that trust.
Leaders are responsible for creating the necessary lanes to encourage the fluid exchange of information throughout a company, but everyone can contribute. When I get frustrated, I ask myself, "What can I control or influence?" and focus on those answers. Even when silos feel outside of our control, individual employees creating small lanes amongst themselves can become infectious and start opening up greater flows. It may not happen overnight, but it is possible to change when we understand the "why" behind silos and the "what" we can do to generate enough action toward addressing them.
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