Trees? Meet Forest! Manage Your Business, not Your Departments

You have undoubtedly heard that old saw, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Unfortunately, that’s how many organizations operate: as if they were a bunch of trees, rather than a unified forest. And it seems to be even more true of older and larger businesses. Another term for this is “silos, as explained by Jacque Vilet in Talent Management and HR: “The term “silo” was created to indicate a similarity between grain silos that separate one type of grain from another and the segregated parts of a company. In a company suffering from silo syndrome, each business unit or function interacts primarily within its own “silo” rather than with other groups across the company.”

And that’s a problem. Because silos, and their attendant lack of collaboration, cooperation, and communication, can cost you money in duplication of effort, lack of synergy, no transfer of knowledge, and no economies of scale. And they can cost you money regarding missing opportunities for innovation and process improvement. Patrick Lencioni in his book Silos, Politics and Turf Wars writes, “Silos – and the turf wars they enable – devastate organizations. They waste resources, kill productivity, and jeopardize the achievement of goals.” But perhaps the biggest danger is that siloed operations are not aligned with the overall accomplishment of a corporate strategy.

Silos may develop from the bottom up, with individual managers protecting their turf and following the maxim “knowledge is power.” Breaking down silos, however, must happen from the top down. Brent Gleason, writing in Forbes, says that breaking down silos require leadership with a unified vision for the company. “For many organizations, this means that not only do all employees of the company need to row in the same direction, but the executive teams must be engaged and at the forefront steering the boat. It is imperative that the leadership team agrees to a common and unified vision for the organization. There must be a large level of executive buy in and core understanding of the company’s long-term goals, department objectives, and key initiatives within the leadership team before passing it down to the teams. A unified leadership team will encourage trust, create empowerment, and break managers out of the “my department” mentality and into the “our organization” mentality.”

Once the C-suite and other executives have bought into a unified strategy, they are then able to start breaking down departmental barriers. There is probably no need to re-organize the company completely; however, there is a huge need to improve communication and collaboration.

Here are some suggestions for encouraging inter-departmental work:

  • Cross-functional teams. Encourage cross-functional teams to work company-wide, or even just interdepartmental challenges and issues. Employees get to know each other, learn more about other areas of the company, and develop mutually acceptable solutions.
  • Go casual. It will be leaders who ultimately challenge lower-level managers and employees to think holistically about the business, so eliminate formality in the company. If everyone has to go through an endless chain of command before engaging leaders, the process will grind to a halt.
  • Use technology to facilitate a unified view of the business. Establish common platforms and systems across your company. Give people access to the same data and information to discourage information hoarding.
  • Collaborative environments. Design comfortable spaces throughout your workspace where cross-functional teams can come together – either planned or spontaneously, in a relaxed setting to create solutions.

Once you start to break down silos, it is important that employee incentive programs are aligned as well. Performance measurement, employee impact on customers, training, compensation, and advancement should all be structured to reward and support company and strategy-supportive behavior.

So when you find yourself looking at the trees in your business, stop. Step back, review your corporate strategy, and ask yourself, “How do I solve this for my business?” You will be rewarded with improved productivity, and faster innovation and growth.

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