Twenty-five years ago, Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, envisioned a "boundary-less organization." So he developed a program to help his organization work better and faster, with seamless collaboration across all levels and locations. Of course this paved the way for countless entities to follow … right?
According to a recent article by Harvard Business Review's Ron Ashkenas, "Our communications technologies have dramatically improved, and we have instantaneous access to massive amounts of information. Welch's 'boundaryless organization' should seemingly be the de facto reality for most companies. To the contrary, however, many organizations still have hierarchical, siloed, and fragmented processes and cultures."
Based on experience across a career that (so far) includes corporations, churches big and small, nonprofit organizations, and even a professional sports franchise over the past 25-ish years, I agree. Most folks, if not all, would also concur.
People routinely bemoan the ills that come from silos, attest to their drain on productivity and efficiency, detest the isolation they produce, and commit to their destruction. And yet silos continue. Even thrive. Why?
The likely culprit: perspective.
Specifically, the existence of silos often (or is it all the time?) comes as an accusation and not often enough (okay, never) as an admission. Listen closely, and the calls to tear down those walls that separate different areas within an organization bellow from safely inside one silo, lobbed toward others. It's a rare person who says, "I've built a silo and it's time for me to tear this thing down."
The problem seems to always involve another area not communicating enough, not welcoming input enough, or not working as a "team." A few suggestions for area-specific leaders:
1. Admit you have either built or fortified a silo, unless evidence exists to the contrary. How often do you invite leaders from other areas to your team/area meetings? Have you ever protected your budget so hard that it prevented other areas from needed increases? Would you consider losing a position so that another team could grow? What, specifically, does your team do to help another team succeed—that doesn't directly benefit your team? The correct, non-silo-perpetuating answers are rather obvious.
2. Undo anything exposed by this admission. To start, talk with whomever you report to and ask for accountability while you dismantle the walls. Here's the key: this isn't a team activity. Teams actually love silos. To achieve serious work, this must be a personal priority. Once you, the leader, set the tone and provide the example to model, then all will follow suit. A leader cannot expect the team to do something he or she is unwilling to do, in big ways and small—so watch tone, demeanor, and other nonverbal behaviors.
A strong example comes to mind from a large church staff where I worked. While just one school grade separates the children's ministry from the junior high ministry, it often seems that the two teams believe they reach exclusive groups of kids. In reality, everyone who attends the children's ministry eventually (if they keep attending the same church) attends the junior high program. One ministry's attrition rate is another's acquisition rate: a great reason to work hand-in-hand. If you work in a church, go ahead and chuckle at the naiveté of this thought.
Fortunately, when I directed the children's ministry, the junior high pastor decided this wasn't funny, and it didn't serve kids well. By his prompting, we attended one another's team meetings to brainstorm how to work together. His worship team occasionally came to our ministry to give the older kids a taste of what was to come. Other joint ventures followed. We even delivered conference talks together. Our topic? "Making smooth transitions." We could have called it "What were we thinking when we expected kids to jump from one silo to the next?"
3. Caution: Understand the difference between a silo and a fox hole. Silos are large and unmistakable, typically (until reading this article) unapologetic. On the other hand, people dig fox holes to go unnoticed—out of fear, such as fear of failure, fear of exposing incompetency, fear of working hard, or fear of leadership. If you discover someone hiding in a fox hole, either give the person a lift out or admit he or she has a good start on a leadership grave.
Silos represent a tremendous opportunity to lead strong and usher in a new day. That day dawns when someone sees a better way that involves more than themselves—and how a greater force exists when areas work together. Thank you Scott Rubin, the Obi Wan Kenobi of junior high ministry, for that lifelong lesson.
David Staal, senior editor for Building Church Leaders and a mentor to a third grader, serves as the president of Kids Hope USA, a national non-profit organization that partners local churches with elementary schools to provide mentors for at-risk students. He also chairs the advisory board for a nearby college, teaches marketing at another university, and served ten years in leadership for a local church following a corporate career. David is the author of Lessons Kids Need to Learn (Zondervan, 2012) and Words Kids Need to Hear (Zondervan, 2008). He lives in Grand Haven, MI, with his wife Becky. His son Scott and daughter Erin attend Valparaiso University.
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