Organizational silos are unavoidable, but you can still make them work for you

The Next Matter Team
December 14, 2022

This isn’t going to be an article that sells you the dream of how to tear down organizational silos in 10 steps. Instead, we’ll go over what organizational silos are, why they are unavoidable as an organization scales, their impact on teams, how people can work around them, and why operations managers play a bigger role in the solution than you might think.

Every manager and business leader wants their teams to work together seamlessly and understand each other perfectly. That's why silos can be incredibly frustrating because that’s simply not how day-to-day interactions work (especially at scale). 

Silos are a huge conversation because they create a tremendous impact on individual work that’s not necessary. People who work in siloed environments tend to have to deal with a lot of company politics. These company politics are also a great example of a symptom within a business that has problematic silos because each person is focused on achieving their own goals without considering overall company goals. 

Eventually, silos evolve from company politics into a full production stop that kills productivity. Most of us have unfortunately worked in a company like this, which is why many articles attempt to tear them down into intuitive guides with only a few steps. Sadly, that’s wishful thinking and frankly unrealistic. But, there are ways to make silos work for your organization, which we’ll explore in this article.

In this article:

1. What are organizational silos?

If you look at a company, you generally have groups of people and teams working within a function or a department to accomplish specific goals. These are organizational silos and allow experts in a field to come together and work on these goals. Silos become problematic when those goals begin to conflict with the goals set by other departments. 

Let’s look at a retailer across Europe as an example. In one silo, you’ve got the purchasing and procurement departments that buy all the products the stores will offer in their assortment. We’ll look at the marketing team as the other silo, which produces leaflets and campaigns to sell these products. 

When a new product is introduced into the retailer’s assortment, collaboration is key. Procurement will procure the product as needed to be added to the assortment, while marketing will create and launch campaigns for those products. Procurement will coordinate with the supply chain while marketing increases the demand for those products. Procurement will work with suppliers and partners, while marketing will help maintain consistent demand for the product.

Illustration for how procurement and marketing work together to create demand and supply that demand with products

Unless these goals are aligned with overarching company goals, including those related to each product launch (like a joint launch date, the specification of products to be listed, where they will be sold, the price points for these products, positioning in the assortment, processes for production, merchandising, as well as advertising, among others), marketing might push a campaign out too quickly. And, a worst-case scenario is that launch dates are missed, customers are unhappy, and the product launch failed after months of hard work and significant investment by various key parts of an organization.

This is when siloed thinking is detrimental to an organization.

Beyond missed deadlines and failed investments, organizational silos significantly slow down companies. This can especially be seen at times of major market changes. Reactive companies suffer from siloed thinking that prevents them from acting before major changes in the market happen and can also cause huge delays in getting new products out, while dynamic companies create processes that adapt to these changes.

Did you know having a workflow management strategy in place can help ease siloed thinking? See how!

1.1 When do organizational silos happen?

Talking about how siloed thinking is bad is just adding to the noise around the topic. Articles called “tearing down silos,” “bridging silos,” and “how to overcome silos” come out on a daily basis, and most of them say the same thing: work together and have similar goals. But, most companies don’t set out to not work together and to have different goals for departments, so the real question might be when these organizational silos begin to form in the first place. 

The first step is to accept that organizational silos are not avoidable — only siloed thinking is. There are two paths to scaling a company: hiring more people for departments to do more tasks that accomplish goals or making more teams to do more tasks that accomplish company goals. It seems like a small difference, but you can think of it like the two-pizza rule that helped Amazon become so successful.

The idea was that as the workload grew, so did the number of teams within the organization. Each team was small enough to share two large pizzas, keeping company politics down through smaller silos. 

Smaller companies, up to about 50 people, generally don’t have this problem, but as they develop from 50 to about 100 people, these problems naturally surface, and most organizations almost always show signs of siloed thinking at 150 people. This coincides with Dunbar’s number, which was named after the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar who researched community sizes in ape populations and found that there are levels of social interactions people are capable of maintaining (about 150), which has been used repeatedly in business and operations theory since.

Illustration of Dunbar's number and how organizational silos form in similar ways from the step of friends at 150 people to acquaintances at 500 people

While some people disagree with Dunbar’s hypothesis, it’s still a good benchmark for planning company and team growth. 

2. Common solutions to organizational silos

When communication breakdowns happen, business leaders step in through numerous alignment meetings and send emails back and forth between different departments to try and fix the problem. 

Still, these meetings sometimes will have up to 20 people and last two or three hours, but never reach a critical point where communication is changed. Eventually, instead of creating a new process for working together, the teams end up with a Minimum Viable Compromise (our re-interpretation of a Minimum Viable Product). Managers begin to set up weekly meetings, where a large team talks for several hours to align on a few small tasks that could have easily been accomplished during the meeting. 

Excellent operations begin to die when Minimum Viable Compromises are reached and held onto in order to push things through barely functioning processes. The cost is a loss of job satisfaction on the side of the employees and a loss of cost efficiency for the organization (so it’s a lose-lose). Organizations can test if they’re functioning under a Minimal Viable Compromise by asking their team members how many times they have to check with someone else before being able to act on something).

People sitting in a large office while working

This is where operations orchestration can help. By orchestrating current operations processes and improving on them through operational strategies, it means that meetings are more productive since you’ll have defined steps to follow with the team and not just a Minimal Viable Compromise to achieve small tasks each week. 

3. How to begin restructuring processes to make silos work

You’ll need to start by going back to the basics and creating transparency on what’s going on to understand why everyone isn’t on the same page.

That means you’ll need someone dedicated to tracking and organizing an organization’s operations (this can be a COO, VP of Operations, Head of Operations, Operations Manager, etc.). To start, it’s helpful to list all departments, including their key processes and workflows that happen on a regular and repeatable basis.

From here, you can define the goals that you’d like to achieve. This can include speed, quality, and/or cost, depending on where your organization is currently at. After defining the new or modified processes and workflows, you’ll be able to implement them with your team. 

Organizational process mapping can happen on a piece of paper or online. You’ll focus on cross-organizational processes to spend time fixing the problems these silos are causing. This might result in interviews with team members to help recreate a picture of what is happening and also to document any of the symptoms an organization experiences when siloed thinking is running rampant. 

Mapping an organization’s processes can take as little as two weeks in small teams but up to several months in organizations with larger silos and longer processes.

Did you know that you can use Next Matter for all of your process mapping needs? See how!

3.1 Creating a plan with concrete goals

This is pretty straightforward and by no means a step-by-step plan to fix all of the processes going wrong. An organization can start with the basic goal of where I am now and where I want to be in the future. Writing this down can help guide solutions to fix these inefficient or broken-down processes.

For example, a common problem among larger corporations with a siloed mentality is that they’ll discover launching a new product takes about 18 months, while it used to take them 3 months only a few years ago. If the goal is to go back down from an 18-month product development cycle to a 3-month product development cycle, this would fit with the goal of defining where we are now and where we want to be in the future. Processes can then be adjusted to meet this goal. 

Another example might be if everything around product management is difficult (from creating a new product to product promotions), it would be a good idea to agree on priorities. What needs to be done? What can be taken out of the process? And, how do we make things more efficient? After answering these types of questions, you can get to work on restructuring the workflow to achieve the goals you’ve set.

It won’t end here, though. Even after you’ve fixed all of the problems that have popped up from the first round of silos, things will continue to naturally break down, which is why maintenance is needed. The solution we’ve seen work is hiring a Head of Operations or Head of Operations Development and empowering them with a software tool to automate and track operations processes.

4. Bridging operational silos through process structuring

Most people skip to this part before laying down the groundwork to be successful in actually fixing problematic organizational silos. But, wishful thinking doesn’t make for good business practice. 

After dedicating a person to your business operations processes, you can either start the mapping process in a software solution like Next Matter or do it on paper. It might take a bit more time to put the processes into Next Matter compared to just scribbling high-level steps on a piece of paper, but the benefit is that you can start running and adapting processes immediately after creating them.

You might be wondering what this would look like in practice, so we’ve made a video to show you:

With Next Matter, you can bridge the gap between organizational silos just by updating the process in our online editor. As long as all of your team members have access and have signed into their profile, they’ll automatically receive notifications on their phone or computer if there is an open task for them to do (you also determine if these notifications are sent via message or email). 

If the team structure changes, you can go under your “team” section and update this or send out Next Matter team invites via email. Since we can integrate with other operations tools like Intercom, Sendgrid, Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace, Slack, and many others, it means you can also structure a process around these tools as well. Our dedicated team of solutions engineers can also step in to support you if you’re having any troubles.

Empower your business operations with a customizable tool designed to scale and prevent operational silos. Not convinced? Let us demo a process of your choosing to show you.


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About the author
Our editorial team brings together no-code hackers, ex-management consultants, and business process experts. They share a passion for enhancing customer experience and operational excellence.

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