A silo exists in an organisation when one group within the organisation has differing goals to another. In most organisations there are groups of people that, usually, have an objective to fulfil by an agreed upon date. For example, the Sales team is set a mandate to increase the number of customers of the company by 10% every month, whereas the Support team has internal performance goals, and one of them is to deliver support within a fixed budget.
These teams have the freedom to innovate to achieve their goals. The Sales team choose to slash the price of their product, and immediately it is flying off the shelves; the Sales team are celebrating! The Support team however are now under pressure, and cannot offer a quality service to all their new customers without new members of staff. Due to the product’s newly discounted price tag, the company cannot afford this extra operational cost.
Before long, the company gets a reputation for poor customer support. These two silos, sales and support, have potentially compromised the future of the enterprise.
What happened here is that this organisation had failed to see the broader picture. Although this example is fictitious, it is easy to imagine happening in the real world.
At Made Tech, we commonly encounter silos within our client organisations, so one of our top priorities on a new engagement is the alignment of our customer’s goals. Cutting through these silos is critical to avoiding scenarios like the one discussed above, and to ensure that our software delivers the greatest value to the whole business.
In situations where our point of contact has a silo-goal, failure to identify this quickly means software can be designed and delivered which does not benefit the wider company aims. Aside from making it difficult to deliver simple solutions for the organisation in the future, this can also have an impact on working relationships.
Goal misalignments are usually unintentional, so it is important to mitigate these behaviours with activities designed to aid delivering great solutions for the whole business.
Communicating with Stakeholders
To understand an organisation's aims in detail, gathering a list of stakeholders and understanding their goals and how they fit into the bigger picture is often useful. One technique that we have found works very well is the use of regular client showcases. These showcases ensure that the parties concerned with the delivery of solutions are kept involved in the evolution of the plan, and feel a sense of ownership of the direction in which the project is going.
Communicating with specialists
A common way teams organise themselves is to group individuals according to their specialisms. Within the tech world, this has resulted in teams such as Backend, Frontend and QA, each of which have different yardsticks by which to measure success, and are therefore at risk not communicating effectively with other departments.
A traditional silo is that of an IT department, viewed as a cost centre. Meanwhile, profit-building software delivery teams are depending on this IT Department for both hardware and software. It is not in the best interest of a company attempting to deploy a new software artefact to production, to be held up by another department that holds the keys.
Uncovering hidden goals
Hidden goals are those goals which are usually found within silos and not shared with the broader business. Inadequate communication is often the cause for these hidden goals, and although it is not reasonable to expect them to all be discovered early on in the development process, it is worth actively seeking them out.
We have found that practising Continuous Delivery is a useful tool for uncovering such goals, given that it allows for a frequent and detailed feedback loop with stakeholders. We can showcase potential solutions regularly, giving stakeholers an effective forum to guide the direction of the project.
Despite this, goals can remain hidden even after showcases. When stakeholders offer feedback on your solution, that feedback may be the product of a hidden goal. It is therefore important to test assumptions about why these changes are being made. Be sure to ask questions about any feedback, even if the answer appears obvious.
Observation is key to discovering silos, and in most companies, it isn't immediately obvious where they are. To give you a feel for what type of activities are indicative of silos we have compiled a list from the trenches to help you in your endeavours.
Communication go-betweens operating as a proxy between engineering and customers, can lead to situations where software engineers are unable to get meaningful feedback on the solutions that they are delivering. Useful and accurate feedback is critical to shipping well-built and well-designed software.
Controlling every detail of a solution in a top-down fashion removes freedom from software delivery teams. Lack of liberty makes it less desirable or necessary for cross-functional teams to emerge (through interdepartmental collaboration). Moreover, this freedom is key to the production of truly innovative and simple solutions. Managers should not need to be involved in every single minutia of a solution, only that the software delivery teams are solving the most pressing strategic issues.
Passing the buck
When no department can deal with an unexpected critical issue and instead passes the buck to another, it can indicate that no team or individual holds true accountability for resolving that issue. The underlying problem is that it shows that people are not aligned with the goals of the company itself. This conflict with the business indicates that those departments passing the buck have formed a silo against the organisation itself.
Lack of robust goal setting
How the evaluation of each team's performance is measured can be a reliable indicator of a silo. In the most extreme case, every department has a balance sheet. This financially-led approach can promote unhealthy internal competition and discourage collaboration between teams. The symptom here is that the goals of two organisational units are at odds with each other. This is compounded if there is no clear process available to staff, through which they can resolve their differences.
Allocating departmental budgets, or in extreme cases, spinning out separately registered companies, can introduce difficult to solve organisational impediments that make it difficult to deliver on company goals. Collaborating across balance sheets becomes politically risky, and can result in the onset of "officially political cultures".
Competitive individual KPIs
When the performance evaluation of individuals prevents or discourages collaboration and knowledge-sharing there is no incentive to behave strategically. This friction can create problems internally for a single department just as much as cross-departmentally. For example, engineers may decide it is not in their best interest interest to behave collaboratively, potentially reducing the quality and speed of delivery of solutions.
The hiring policy is a good indicator of silos within departments; departments can fight for expansion which can prevent hires elsewhere in critical areas of the business. Hiring without a clear and mutually agreed reason in mind could lead to hiring in the wrong places or for the wrong reasons. Many companies encourage departments to compete over recruiting budgets, but this doesn't solve real business problems. The interview process itself might highlight the competition between teams, such as when other teams are unaware of the recruitment but are still expected to work with the new hire.
How to break down silo mentality
Now that you have a better understanding of how to spot a silo, it's possible to begin breaking them down by doing the following:
- Establish shared goals to ensure that departmental goals have organisational alignment.
- Ensure the organisation has high-level goals, above all departments to which departmental goals help meet.
- Ensure organisational goals are directly related to the vision.
Once this framework is in place, it becomes trivial for anyone within an organisation to set highly aligned personal, project, or product goals that directly impact the business achieving its targets.
It is important to get departments to speak to each other on important matters, such as how they will attain their goals collaboratively. For example, a digital design department should meet regularly with a software engineering department to determine how they will ship an online software product together.
Departments should not communicate solely through hierarchies; a junior software engineer could and should be in direct contact with designers.
As this evolves, it becomes clearer that it is more efficient to have departments working alongside each other to deliver a product. When people with different skillsets need to collaborate with the same goal, they should attend the same meetings, be aware of the same problems, and have a clear sense of shared direction and purpose.
Requiring formality or involving convoluted chains of command at this stage will only hinder collaboration. At this point, management shifts to a broader view of the company rather than micromanaging all daily details. Instead, the freedom granted to the team allows them to deliver continuously and ship products more quickly. Tighter collaboration between skillsets leads to better product quality thanks to a better understanding of the issues. Formal long meetings can be a symptom of having too much bureaucracy around collaboration, which can make it less desirable for employees to break down silos.
The really innovative companies are creating shared offices where teams with diverse skillsets (potentially cross-departmental) can collaborate. A psychological silo can manifest itself into a physical one with real walls and closed spaces inside the company. An analysis on how the office space is laid out can help to uncover potential silos.
Leaders should encourage everybody to work with anybody to solve company problems. Employees should be able to move freely to another team if needed for the current objectives, and the decision to attend a meeting should be made by anyone who believes it will achieve progress towards the higher company goals.
Silos create organisational bottlenecks. In any organisation, this can feel like arbitrary red tape, slowing progress for no real reason. For software teams, an individual having exclusive domain knowledge means the team's ability to develop and release software is hampered when said individual is unavailable. Look for ways to ensure such knowledge is shared amongst the whole team by making everyone aware of the goals your organisation has, and the role the software they're building plays in pursuit of those goals.