Magazine Article | May 12, 2011

Breaking Down Silos: A Q&A With John Kotter

Source: Life Science Leader

By John Kotter

What are some risks silos pose to an organization?
Silos can occur in global corporations or start-up ventures with 15 employees or more. And no matter the size, they are detrimental to an organization’s ability to succeed in a rapidly changing world. It’s also important to note that silos can be vertical or horizontal. Individual units can have high barriers between them or senior leadership can be completely isolated from lower management levels.

A siloed organization cannot act quickly on opportunities that arise in a fast-paced business landscape, nor is it able to make productive decisions about how to change in order to seize these opportunities. Consider the following consequences of organizational silos:
Destroy Trust: People who spend significant time in a single department or division often develop loyalty to their immediate group and distrust in the motives of others, even if they are in the same firm. Product development may view sales with suspicion, a global subsidiary looks at the American parent with great disdain, and so on. Without trust, you cannot create teamwork across an organization, and without a team that moves quickly, organizations fall behind their competitors.
Cut Off Communication: Silos cut off clear communication between different business units or managerial levels. People can fall easily into only communicating with those directly around them or those who are at the same level in the organization. When there is little or unclear communication between groups, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. As a leader, you fall out of touch with employee sentiment, lose track of important resources at your fingertips and don’t hear crucial feedback.
Foster Complacency: In an organization where people in different divisions have little contact with one another, it’s easy to become inwardly focused and complacent with the status quo. It will cause them to miss new opportunities and hazards coming from competitors or customers and changes in the regulatory environment. For example, if R&D has little communication with sales, research employees will never know end customers’ changing preferences, and your organization could lose out to another competitor that meets customer needs better and faster.

How can you recognize when silos are forming in your organization?
There are several signs. First, are you surprised to hear about projects taking place in other divisions? Are these projects well underway, without your ever knowing about them? Second, do you communicate infrequently with other leaders around the organization? Finally, have you been championing an opportunity or project for a while, and a large subset of the organization doesn’t know about it or understand why you are pursuing it? Ask yourself these questions. If you’re finding the answers are yes, there’s a good chance silos are present in your organization.

To eliminate silos you must bring people across the organization together. There are several ways you can do this:
Bring the outside in: Make divisions share data with one another so people understand how each division is performing, what customer or external stakeholder complaints are, and where this room for improvement. Make it clear this is an important opportunity to galvanize action, but it’s not a blame game. Frame changes that must be made as organizational, not divisional.

Focus on opportunity, not crisis: While crisis can be a catalyst for action, fear also can send people running for the door. If you frame the organization’s need to break down silos as a positive opportunity, you will see more people raising their hand to do it. Help people in different divisions understand how they have a chance to make the organization better and more powerful by eliminating the barriers between divisions or management levels.

Create a “guiding coalition” that breaks down barriers: Bring together a team of people committed to changing the way the organization operates, composed of people from all levels, divisions and locations. Don’t pick this team; require people to apply for it to gauge their level of commitment. Ensure this team has enough:

  • Key players on it so those left out cannot block change
  • People who represent all relevant points of view in the organization
  • Credibility so that the group’s pronouncements will be taken seriously
  • Skilled managers and proven leaders to drive the change process

Once formed, hold an inaugural in-person meeting that allows members to connect to each other with both hearts and minds as a way to build trust among them. Set regular meetings, such as quarterly in-person gatherings and bi-weekly conference calls, to maintain momentum. Encourage group members to communicate outside of organized meetings and, more importantly, filter messages about the group’s activities to others in their respective divisions or offices. Finally, ensure senior leadership stays closely involved with the guiding coalition — without this involvement, the group cannot make needed change happen.

John Kotter is the chief innovation officer for Kotter International, a leadership organization that helps Global 5000 company leaders develop the practical skills and implementation methodologies required to lead change in a complex, large-scale business environment. He is also the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at the Harvard Business School and a graduate of MIT and Harvard.