Silo mentality – no one likes it, everyone knows it

Guest contribution by | 14.01.2021 | Processes & methods |

Whoever hears the term “silo mentality” may think of agriculture and large grain stores in which grain is stored. The contents are safe from outside influences, they cannot be stolen and yet they can be retrieved quite easily. Yes, silos make a lot of sense in agriculture. But not in business, where they often cause big problems.

What is silo mentality actually?

Many companies have a classic departmental organisation: marketing, sales, accounting, HR and development – such departments are ubiquitous. Silo mentality means that large and small decisions are made within a department and primarily for the benefit of the department itself.

The most common reason it arises is because of predetermined goals that the individual departments are working towards. Such goals can rarely be reconciled with each other, so that conflicts or even trench warfare almost inevitably arise.

Example:

  • Purchasing has a clear target: the number of suppliers must be kept as low as possible.
  • IT has a clear guideline: the costs for the new hardware must be as low as possible.

Actually, IT would like to put a new supplier on the whitelist or positive list because it can deliver the desired hardware cheaply and provides good support. But the purchasing department is against it. They do not want to add another supplier for this area. In corporate practice, it can often be observed that the purchasing department “gets its way” and buys the required hardware from the listed standard supplier. It is particularly bitter when the products do not belong to their standard repertoire, because then the purchasing conditions are higher and support is not really guaranteed. This is a conflict of interest that can lead to higher costs and a lower mood in the departments.

Different levels of silo mentality

There are other reasons and perspectives on silo mentality: the term suggests that it is simply a way of thinking. However, there are several levels that fall under this term. The deeper silo mentality goes, the more dangerous it becomes for the company and the more difficult it becomes to overcome it.

Level 1: Acting

The easiest level and the one that can be overcome most quickly is to act in silo mentality.

The development and customer service departments do not exchange enough feedback from customers. Complaints are recorded by customer service, but development only learns about them in exceptional cases and cannot use this knowledge for the ongoing development of the product.

It is noticeable that both departments do not use the same database. Each department uses the master data of the customer, but has no access to further entries of the other departments. The problem could easily be solved with a comparatively simple change in the software used.

At this level, intention usually does not play a major role. Staff would exchange information if only someone had recognised the problem. A change in action can be achieved quickly through simple technical or personnel changes.

Level 2: Thinking

The next level down is that of actual thinking. It is much more difficult to overcome because a goal is being pursued here, i.e. there is an intention behind the action.

New software is to be introduced in the accounting department. There are already a few concrete proposals for standard solutions, which are then to be individualised by IT. In order to correctly record all the requirements, it would be best if an employee from the accounting department worked part-time on the project and was released from his or her actual duties for a few hours a week.

In the department meeting, the plan is heatedly discussed:

  • “Well, I don’t have time for that.”
  • “It won’t work anyway, I don’t support it.”

Finally, everyone agrees:

  • “Let IT do it themselves and then submit a proposal to us.”

At this level, one’s own employees, as well as the effort and costs, are considered much more important than those of the other department. Tasks and responsibilities are shifted back and forth.

In corporate practice, this leads to projects that drag on unnecessarily. Often, IT submits a proposal that the accounting department rejects because “of course” it had imagined something else. So the IT department is allowed to work out a new proposal and “the game” starts all over again. A tragic “never ending story”.

Level 3: Perceiving

The lowest level and probably the most difficult to overcome is that of perception. It is easily confused with one of the other two levels. However, it is an enhancement of both.

In this level of silo mentality, departments are convinced that the success of the company depends solely on them. They themselves are the bandwagoners, everyone else is just doing a necessary job.

The marketing department simply refuses to work more closely with sales and plan measures.

The marketing manager’s comment in private on this:

  • “They just don’t know how things work. After all, we have to open the door to them, nothing would happen without our measures. If we give them a say, everything goes down the drain.”

 

What to do about silo mentality?

Unfortunately, the question is not so easy to answer. There is no universal answer. It is not enough, for example, to invite all managers to a workshop where they climb together or make paper aeroplanes.

First of all, it is important to know at what level the silo mentality resides. The good news is: the simplest level, that of action, is also the one that occurs most often. In most cases, there is no malicious intent behind it at all and a technical solution is sufficient to eliminate the problems. It “only” takes common sense and some organisational skill to analyse the exact reasons. All those involved are first surprised that their actions are problematic at all and then how quickly it can be solved.

For the second level, additional steps are already necessary. It is essential to look at the structure of the company. Often, overarching projects (if necessary also ordered from “above”), as well as formal and above all informal networks are needed. Here, too, there is good news: managers and employees at this level of silo mentality are usually open to new approaches and are happy to try something new.

The last level, where self-perception plays the most important role, can only be dealt with if the personality is also considered in advance. This does not necessarily mean the personality of individual managers or employees, but that of the entire department. Because if the basic assumption prevails that one’s own department is the most important, networking measures will not be effective either, they would only be perceived as an annoying compulsory event. Instead, it is important that the members of the department question the impression they have of themselves and of others. Subsequently, it is important to develop common visions with other departments.

Conclusion: It’s up to YOU!

You would think that most employees would realise that silo mentality not only brings individual problems, but can even become dangerous for a company. Perhaps this is indeed the case, and yet silo mentality is at home in many companies. Especially because the trigger does not even have to be large and visible to all.

Reflections of a department head:

  • “My report is almost ready, I just need to flesh out a few points. I know that my colleague is waiting for exactly that. What happens if I give him a version in advance? I don’t want anyone here to get the idea that I can’t do my work. I think I’ll finish the open points first and then bring the report straight to the department head meeting…”

Banal things that happen like this or something similar every day can be the cornerstone of silo mentality. No company is immune to this. So it is not bad at all if there is silo mentality in your company. It is only bad if YOU do nothing about it!

 

Notes:

You can find out more about Stephanie Selmer at https://stephanieselmer.com/.

Stephanie Selmer has published more articles in the t2informatik blog, including

t2informatik Blog: The one talent we need in the digital future

The one talent we need in the digital future

t2informatik Blog: Introversion or Extraversion

Introversion or Extraversion

t2informatik Blog: My Wish List to Scrum Master

My Wish List to Scrum Master

Stephanie Selmer
Stephanie Selmer

Strong companies do not only rely on new IT systems for their way into the future, but above all on their employees. Stephanie Selmer supports organisations in making changes, improving cooperation, achieving common goals and finding IT professionals. Her clients include medium-sized companies from all sectors who see digitalisation as an opportunity to empower their employees.