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Libby Marks

How to Break Down Silos Within an Organization: Expert Advice

Organizational silos reduce productivity, innovation, and agility. Here are 10+ practical ways to break down silos in your project-based business.

Organizational silos are when teams or individual departments operate in isolation from one another. They’re a big barrier to business because they lock information and expertise away, instead of sharing it for the benefit of the wider organization.

Silos are not intentional. They tend to evolve as organizations grow. But - if you’re not careful - they can lead to active antagonism between teams. So if you start spotting signs of silo mentality in your business, it’s time to tackle it.

We talked to Runn COO Nicole Tiefensee, CEO Tim Copeland, and New Work and Transformation Consultant Nora Fleischhut, to find out how.

What is an organizational silo?

An organizational silo describes a team or department that is disconnected from the rest of the business.

An organizational silo typically:

  • Forms around departmental or geographic lines
  • Works in isolation, rarely collaborating with other teams
  • Pursues its own agenda and goals
  • Has siloed data and systems that other teams can't access

Often, organizational silos are endemic and all departments work in isolation. Sometimes even in conflict with one another. 

This makes it difficult for organizations to achieve their overarching strategic objectives because people aren’t pulling in the same direction.

When people row in opposite directions, they’re expending a lot of energy but going nowhere fast. When people row in the same direction, that’s when progress is made, says Fleischhut.

How do organizational silos occur?

Silos aren’t typically a result of malice or malpractice. No-one wakes up in the morning and decides to be uncoordinated or uncooperative. They just evolve over time and become entrenched.

The evolution of organizational silos

When a business starts out, it typically has a flat structure with a single team. But as it grows, it needs separate teams and departments to manage different functions. Like finance, HR, marketing, etc.

As a growing company, you start to get more specialized and a pillar structure around specializations can begin to emerge, explains Runn COO, Nicole Tiefensee. 

That in itself is not a problem. You need certain types of people and talent, and you’ll naturally start grouping them together. Where it becomes problematic is when siloed communication or a silo mentality starts to develop. If a group is not aligned with the bigger picture, it can become an issue.

If these separate teams maintain strong lines of communication, there’s no reason for silos to occur. But the bigger and more complex your structure, the harder it is to keep in touch. 

Once teams lose direct touch, they can take on a life of their own, leading to harmful fragmentation of your business. 

For example:

  • Setting up systems and processes that work well for them - but are incompatible with other team’s
  • Pursuing their own department goals at the expense of other departments’ - or overall organizational - priorities
  • Actively withholding information from other teams due to mistrust or historic conflict

Organizational silos: nature or nurture? 

Of course, it isn’t all evolutionary stuff. Some bad practices nurture teams into silos, such as:

  • Poor leadership
  • Blame culture/mistrust
  • Cross-team competition
  • Even personal antagonism

Nicole remembers a time she was working as a Project Manager in a large business where silos were rife. 

As a PM, I needed input from different teams - estimates, ETAs - but it could be hard to get the information or collaboration I needed. Teams had a trust issue. They’d been burned before by being held to unmanageable deadlines or blamed for issues. So they became overcautious - for example, adding unrealistic buffers into schedules - to protect themselves from what seemed like a hostile environment outside their team.

This not only shows how silos can be bad for business but how - once they begin to form - they can be very hard to break down.

Why are organizational silos bad for business?

Organizational silos are proven to reduce productivity, efficiency, and agility because they slow down project progress and decision-making, says Tiefensee. 

They also stifle innovation. If we’re only talking to people that have the same experiences as us, we miss that diversity of ideas and opinions that can really drive products forward. 

Some common consequences of organizational silos

  • Lost productivity - Dysfunctional communication and disjointed collaboration negatively impact workflows - wasting time and introducing delays to projects 
  • Less innovation - Silos can become echo chambers, recycling the same experiences, ideas and opinions, which stifles creativity and fresh thinking
  • Lower efficiency - Silos create waste, especially when work is duplicated across multiple teams because Team A doesn’t know what Team B is doing 
  • Difficult decision-making - Siloed data slows down decision-making or forces leaders to make decisions based on limited information
  • Increased risk - Silos cause blind spots in the business, leaving leaders in the dark and increasing exposure to risk
  • Lower staff morale - Silos can breed inter-team conflict and a toxic corporate culture than reduces staff morale
  • Unhappy customers - Silos can lead to cardinal sins against your clients - like overpromising, underdelivering, and delays
I remember a time where two teams kept bouncing a customer between them, because neither would accept it as their responsibility,’ recalls Nora Fleischhut. The customer saw no progress, and each team wasted time in dispute with one another, instead of working together to solve the problem. I call it “responsibility ping-pong”. If you start hearing “That’s not my job”, it could indicate a problem with silo mentality, she advises.

Examples of organizational silos 

Here are two examples of data and organizational silos that can negatively impact business performance for a project-based organization. 

Misalignment between sales and delivery teams

If your sales team and delivery teams are working in silos, this can cause major issues for your project-based business. Without an understanding of your delivery teams’ capacity and capabilities, there’s a risk that the sales team will oversell projects or deliverables. 

This might meet their sales targets, delight the departmental manager, and secure stellar new clients.

But when the delivery team can’t meet the promises that the sales team has made, those client relationships can turn sour. As can the relationship between the two departments - with delivery begrudging sales for overpromising, and sales wondering what delivery’s problem is.

This is a win-lose-lose situation, explains business transformation expert Nora Fleischhut. Sales win, but the delivery team and the customer lose. 

If sales are overly focused on their revenue goals, it can create a downstream problem for the delivery team. There needs to be a shift in goals so that everyone is aligned on creating a win-win-win situation instead. Because that’s what is best for the customer and the business.

Disconnect between operations and HR

Your HR team prides itself on effective recruitment that delivers the skills your business needs, in the most timely and cost-effective way possible. Timing is crucial to ensure new recruits are onboarded to deliver projects to schedule and prevent unnecessary delays. 

However, if your operations team isn’t able to communicate staffing needs in a timely fashion, HR isn’t going to be able to deliver. They may need to bring in short-term contractors - at a higher rate - to fill a skills shortage they’ve only just been informed about.

This causes frustration on both sides, as HR lament these last-minute requests, and operations curse the cost of their new resources or delays to their projects.

How to break down organizational silos

Organizational silos can seem inevitable or intractable.

But it is possible to break down silos and unlock higher productivity, efficiency, and innovation for your project-based business. 

Breaking down silos is about changing culture from above and giving people the tools to work together more effectively. 

1. Communicate a shared vision 

Silos can start to form when departmental goals aren’t aligned with your organization’s overall vision. So set your North Star and make sure every team is aligned to it.

Departments can get bogged down in the detail of how they do their job well, but lose sight of how that contributes to the bigger picture.

If Team A is chasing Goal 1 and Team B is pursuing Goal 2, they’re not working together. There needs to be shared strategic goals that everyone is pulling towards and accountable for, says Tiefensee. 

Leaders should encourage each team to think about how their activities ladder up to those common objectives - and support them by removing any barriers in their way.

Everyone in the organization should understand how their work personally contributes to the bigger picture. ‘Clarity and alignment are key,’ says Fleischhut. 

What if you’re a scaling start-up and don’t have that shared vision yet? ‘Co-create it,’ advises Fleischhut. ‘Get teams involved in defining your organizational goals to give them ownership over their part in it.’

2. Incentivize collaboration 

With busy workloads and departmental goals, cross-team collaboration isn’t always a top priority for operational leaders. Especially if they feel in competition with others for budget or resources. So senior leadership needs to make it a priority. 

Department heads should have KPIs and collaboration tools that encourage them to work together and towards de-siloing systems. For example, if the delivery team is consistently missing client deadlines, this isn’t just a delivery team problem. 

You need to:

  • examine the full pipeline and identify every team involved
  • assign KPIs to each team for their part in solving the issue
  • provide a mechanism for collaborating to resolve it - such as a cross-team working group

Team leaders can also implement incentives for their staff to collaborate more frequently and effectively. 

For example,

  • An annual award for the best cross-team collaboration 
  • A shout-out at your monthly meeting for any colleague that has helped another team

Normalizing and celebrating cross-team working softens boundaries between teams and lays the foundation for one-team thinking.

At Runn, we’re a super happy and collaborative team. Team leaders make it a priority to help colleagues when they ask for help. In a recent interview with our CTO Rowan, he explained:

In engineering, we've always said that our number one priority is helping. When you see someone asking for assistance, we prioritize that as the highest priority. That becomes more of a priority than any feature you could possibly be working on. Because you are unblocking. You’re helping someone else to achieve their best, and you are only putting a slow pause on what you are doing. That's something that we practice and embed into the culture.

3. Improve internal communication 

Internal communications is concerned with improving the flow of information through your organization. Done well, it can help break down silos by providing platforms for sharing knowledge and making cross-team connections. 

For example, by crafting and cascading leadership team updates, running conferences and workshops where siloed teams get to meet, and providing tools like a social intranet to support intra-team conversations. 

Use different channels to engage people in different ways. For example, don’t just issue a printed newsletter and expect everyone to read it.

Sum things up in a vox pop video from your CEO or an animated explainer. Host a live stream where people can ask questions and also make it available to watch on demand.  

At Runn, we use Loom - for example - to deliver easy-to-digest briefings to support successful asynchronous working.

Related: What is Open Communication & Why It Matters in the Workplace

4. Invest in the resourcing function

In one of our recent webinars, we've concluded that resource managers play a critical role in breaking down silos in the organization and serve as a catalyst for growth. As our CEO Tim Copeland explains,

Resource managers play an essential role in dismantling organizational silos and acting as a catalyst for transformation. But what does this mean? A lot of the tension that gets brought into organizations is the two quite different competing forces at work. One is the work that needs to get done. The second one is the people, the capability, and the capacity of your organization. And how well in sync they are, makes such a big difference. This is where a resource manager's role is pivotal.

The sync includes not only a shared understanding of plans and goals but also the practicalities of operational efficiency. For instance, establishing connections between different aspects of the business is crucial for streamlining operations. The common issue, albeit somewhat cliché yet still relevant, is that many business problems arise due to segregated operations. This division can be observed in larger organizations with distinct sales, project management, delivery, accounting, finance, HR, talent, and hiring teams. The trouble appears when these segments remain isolated, creating a dysfunctional workflow.

Our focus is addressing this challenge. While we're still refining our approach, we're actively working on building better systems to bridge these departmental gaps. Our goal is to establish alignment across the organization's systemic structure.

Consider a personal example from my previous role. We'd often receive new projects, and the sales team would eagerly hand them off to the delivery team. However, the delivery team couldn't fulfill the commitments due to unforeseen changes since the initial interaction with the sales team. This mismatch caused a cascade of issues that ultimately required HR's intervention for hiring. This situation was a result of the lack of shared visibility and communication.

We're striving to rectify this by developing a solution that allows for a shared plan accessible to everyone. This plan would help foresee the consequences of commitments, offering a clearer picture to HR, delivery, and sales.

5. Make teams more permeable

In an interview with our CEO Tim - for our Future of Work series - he talks about the importance of ‘permeability’ if larger businesses want the agility of startups. He predicts that organizations will embrace more internal movement, letting people move more freely between traditionally siloed groups. 

Instead of being constrained by legacy structures and factionalism that builds artificial barriers [...] I see increasing fluidity of team composition and how people join and leave teams. The walls within the organization will become more permeable and there will be more internal movement. But to achieve those benefits, organizations will need increased transparency into their resources, and to what area they’re working in.

A resource management platform like Runn can provide that visibility and flexibility to allocate people where they can make the biggest impact.

6. Create secondment and shadowing opportunities

One of the best ways to break down barriers and create ‘permeability’ is to provide opportunities for people to experience life in other teams. 

It can help tackle a “them and us” mindset and encourage one-team thinking instead, explains Tiefensee. 

Providing opportunities to walk in another’s team’s shoes increases 

  • Cross-team understanding of what other groups do and why
  • Awareness of relevant contacts and who to ask about things
  • Knowledge sharing and transparency 
  • Empathy and trust in other teams
If you can understand what other teams do, what their challenges are, and what a day in their lives looks like, it can improve understanding and reveal opportunities, explains Tiefensee. Secondment opportunities, job shadowing, onboarding buddies, and project-based teams are some of the ways we try to encourage movement and cross-team experiences at Runn.

Here are some ways you could break down barriers between teams.

  • Provide opportunities for people to join other teams - whether that’s one day’s shadowing or a six-month secondment
  • Make cross-team collaboration part of the induction process - pair new staff with a buddy in another team to give them cross-team experience as part of their onboarding
  • Create cross-functional roles - jobs that span different departments and facilitate shared goals and information sharing

Related: Managing a Cross-Functional Team? Here's Everything You Should Know

7. Develop cross-border relationships 

The wider people’s networks within the organization, the more likely they are to spot opportunities for cross-team collaboration. 

It isn’t just about meetings - they can be so unproductive! Try to create multiple platforms throughout the year for teams to come together and get to know one another. From annual conferences to pop-up ‘market stalls’ where teams talk about what they do.

Remember, networks don’t just develop through formal work channels. 

Provide ways for people to make connections beyond their jobs, such as networking groups, social groups, sports teams, and volunteering opportunities. Extending personal relationships can improve professional opportunities.  

At Runn, we use Donut in Slack to help colleagues get to know people in other teams, says Tiefensee. Donut connects colleagues at random - once a week - for a quick chat. It’s a great way to meet new people and learn what they do.

8. Centralize systems and data

Information and data silos are a major challenge for modern businesses. We’re collectively creating 328.77 million terabytes of data a day. Managing that effectively is essential if organizations want to leverage it to their benefit.

Gartner predicts that organizations that promote data sharing will outperform their peers on most business value metrics. ‘The traditional “don’t share data unless” mindset should be replaced with “must share data unless.” By recasting data sharing as a business necessity, leaders will have access to the right data at the right time, enabling more robust strategies that deliver business benefit.’

However, organizational silos mean systems and data are often stuck in silos too. It starts because individual teams need access to specialist software. But ends up with data being collected about customers or products or processes in numerous different databases - with no communication between them. 

This is bad for everyone:

  • Customers get a disjointed experience because Team A doesn’t know what Team B is doing
  • Leaders are making decisions without seeing the full picture 
  • Consolidating data sets takes time and introduces the risk of human error 

Centralizing your data systems is undoubtedly a scary process but one that can pay dividends. There are lots of different options out there, depending on your business needs. And you’ll likely need to integrate several solutions into a bespoke ecosystem for your business.

For example:

  • An Enterprise Information Management system can help organizations consolidate and manage their master data across all departments, so leaders have the full picture of the business.
  • A CRM system provides one source of truth for all information about customer interactions, so they get better communication and experience.
  • A central resource management system provides a single place to view available resources and workload, for more effective allocation of work across the entire organization.
  • A quality management system provides somewhere to record and share processes, SOPS, and best practices to facilitate knowledge sharing and onboarding.

According to our CEO Tim,

The introduction of such a system has the potential to be transformative. During the onboarding of new clients, latent conflicts that were once hidden can surface. The act of inputting plans into the system uncovers these issues. The lesson learned here is that various strategies can drive transformative efforts within organizations. While inspirational speakers can elevate spirits temporarily, the true challenge lies in translating ideas into actionable reality. Often, existing systems fail in this regard, emphasizing the need for systemic solutions. When these systems involve resource management solutions, they become the foundation for constructing a high-quality organization.

Start with a strategy to de-silo your data and see if your internal IT team can support it. If not, using an external consultancy can help you understand your options and optimum software stack. 

9. Create cross-team visibility 

One of the main benefits of centralizing your data and systems is that it increases visibility across the organization. Teams have a unified vision and can see the same information - about customers, about capacity, about your project pipeline. [With the appropriate data privacy and permissions in place, of course!] 

This helps to eliminate problems caused by data and organizational silos. 

Remember the sales team example above? Sales are selling projects that the delivery team doesn’t have the capacity or capabilities for right now.

If sales could access a central resource management system that lets them SEE future capacity and availability up front, they’d be able to sell more accurately. Or know to consult someone in delivery to discuss project feasibility. And HR would be able to monitor utilization for a heads-up on roles they might need to recruit.

To be effective, systems and data need to be understandable. Giving other teams to a spreadsheet or database is less effective than giving them access to a platform where they could create their own reporting dashboard, for example. 

10. Surface hidden talents 

Visibility is also key to making the most of your team’s hidden talents. We’ve all got them - a secret skill that isn’t related to our current role but could still be valuable to the business. 

Tracking these skills can unlock new opportunities for cross-team collaboration (that’s one of the reasons it’s a key feature in Runn!)

Say one of your developers has a passion for podcasts - and you have a podcast project in the marketing team that could benefit from their skill set. If that person can jump in, share their expertise, and contribute to the project, that should be encouraged. It’s good for the business, for cross-team relationships, and for individual skill development. A central skills log can help you identify those opportunities quickly and easily, says Tiefensee.

11. Respect processes

Other teams’ processes can often seem overly bureaucratic and time-consuming. You want finance to sign something off but there’s a library of forms to fill in. And if you do one wrong, you’re bounced right back to the start of the process.

While this can be frustrating, these processes usually exist for a good reason. 

It can help you collaborate more effectively with another team if you respect their preferred ways of working - such as filling in forms in full and submitting them by the deadline (rather than leaving things to the last minute and getting frustrated when they won’t rush things for you ‘as a favor’).

12. But refine them too…

On the other side of this equation, teams that work with other stakeholders should be mindful of how their processes work for internal customers. 

  • Are they user-friendly?
  • Are they the best way to do things? 
  • Do you REALLY need all that information? 

Test your processes as if you were a team outsider. Is it clear what’s needed and why? If not, your team may actually be wasting time supporting people who could easily self-serve if your systems were better. This causes frustration on both sides and causes inefficiencies. 

Simple changes to processes can make life easier for everyone. For example, do you really need to email that form as a PDF for someone to print out, fill by hand, and scan it back to you? Or could you have an online form instead - one that’s quick for internal customers to fill in and which doesn’t need your team to manually re-enter data?

Related: What Successful Directors of Operations Do Differently

13. Encourage curiosity and challenge

When people routinely follow processes because ‘that’s just how things are done’, it can reinforce silos and hamper creativity. You should always encourage people to question and challenge why they’re doing something a certain way. 

Ask questions like:

  • What’s the rationale behind this activity?
  • Are we the best team to be doing this?
  • Is anyone else already doing something similar? 
  • Who might be appropriate to consult or collaborate with?

This is a great way to find new productive ways of working together, encourage autonomy at work (which leads to higher job satisfaction), and create a culture of innovation (which is proven to drive higher profits). 

14. Address antagonism 

Sometimes silos occur as a direct result of antagonism between teams. Interpersonal conflict can become embedded in the behavior of a whole team. 

What might have started as a beef between two team leaders can be passed down to team members and indoctrinated into new recruits. You have two tribes at war and no-one really knows why. 

This type of silo can manifest as resistance to collaboration, trash-talking the other team, and undermining their successes. It needs tackling head on or it will continue to fester and turn into silo mentality - where teams actively seek to work in isolation from others. 

  • Start with a mediated meeting between the team leaders to get all the issues on the table and find the root cause of the problem. 
  • Encourage team leaders to model positive and proactive behavior even when they’re not feeling it! 
  • Understand what makes healthy teams and take steps to foster this in your organization.

One - perhaps less obvious - way to reduce antagonism between teams is to make sure they’re not stressed out and overworked in the first place. 

Colleagues are far more likely to be open to helping one another if they have the time to do it. Look for ways to create a fair and balanced workload across all of your people if you want them to be their collaborative best selves!

15. Keep fighting the tide

Nicole’s final piece of advice is that preventing and breaking down silos is an ongoing project, not a task-and-finish situation.

As leaders, we need to acknowledge this is a continuous process. Silos will always start to form. We need to constantly and deliberately work against silo formation. If you’re not sure where to start, start by seeking understanding. Go to another team and just ask “Can you tell me more about what your team does?” and take it from there.

If you’re suffering from silos in your project-based business, one way to tackle it is with resource planning and management software.

A centralized platform like Runn provides the ultimate transparency into projects, utilization, and capacity. With at-a-glance insights, customizable dashboards, and easy-to-understand reports.

This lets delivery, sales, HR, senior leaders, and project managers all easily align for the benefit of your customers, your teams, and your bottom line.

Start your free trial today to see how it can turn siloed into seamless and streamlined.

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