Silos and Turf Wars: How to Break Down Silos in the Workplace

Silos in the workplace

Silos, turf wars, empire building; these are all terms we commonly use to talk about the phenomenon of departmental-focused organizations within a company. In the first part and the second part of this three part series, Silos and Turf Wars, I discussed what organizational silos are, how they are formed, and the various reasons why they’re considered bad for the organization. In this final entry, I will talk about how to break down silos in the workplace and minimize their damage on the company as a whole.

As we can see from the discussion thus far, silos in the workplace are primarily created for a couple of reasons: Lack of cohesion at the executive level, lack of agreed-to medium-term tangible company goals and lack of communication of those goals to the entire company.

In the final part of this series on Silos and Turf Wars below, I will outline the steps you can take to break down and eliminate silos from occurring the workplace.

1. Break down silos in the workplace with a cohesive executive team

Break down silos in the workplace with a cohesive executive team

First things first: get your executive team working together. I cover this specifically in my series on Why Teams Fail; this would be a good time to go read those articles. In them, I talk about why executive teams become dysfunctional and specifically how to solve this dysfunction. You have to get your executive team passionately debating the issues and completely buying into the ultimate decisions before the issue of silos in the workplace can be addressed successfully. In many cases, converting your executive team into a well-oiled machine that is focused exclusively on the overarching goals of the company will solve a lot of issues created by organizational silos – and potentially eliminate silos altogether.

Every executive on the team must be ultimately held accountable for either achieving or missing the agreed-to goals of the company. To do this, they must operate as a team and make decisions that advance the company towards those goals, regardless of the impact to their specific division for the company. Another way to say this: in their role as members of the executive team, they must be company executives, not VP of this or that. The VP of Marketing must be as concerned with Engineering’s role in achieving the stated goals as they are their own department. Likewise with every VP role. In the executive meeting, specific titles must be left at the door so decisions can be made for the right reasons.

In order to achieve this, personal status and achievement must take a back seat to meeting the corporate goals. Decisions simply cannot be made based on their effect on a particular division. The executive team must be willing to hold each other accountable for the results. This means, by default, that the executives have all committed to the company goals to begin with. It also means that compensation and incentive packages must be geared more towards meeting corporate goals than towards meeting personal goals. If the VP of Marketing isn’t going to get their annual bonus if Engineering misses the mark, they are going to be much more concerned about Engineering getting what they need to accomplish the task at hand.

Getting a bunch of executives to all agree on something is probably not going to happen. Most executive teams can’t agree on where to have lunch, much less on what the company needs to accomplish in the next nine months. The good news here is that consensus is not needed to get complete buy-in and commitment to a decision. In fact, having a team drive towards consensus will likely result in bad decisions being made, as concessions are made to appease everyone. A well-oiled executive team knows that consensus is not likely and is more concerned with the process of making correct decisions.

So, how do you go about getting a bunch of highly opinionated executives to buy into a decision they may not actually agree with? You (as the leader) must make sure there is a passionate debate about the specific issue, and that everyone participates. If this is done right, feelings may get hurt, people will argue and pound the table, and even the quieter members of the team will engage in arm-waving and debating – because it just isn’t possible to not participate. You, as the leader, have to foster this environment, and not only allow the debate but encourage it. So many times, I have seen the leader of a team shut down a debate because of the feeling it has getting too heated, personal or uncomfortable. This is actually destructive to achieving a high-functioning executive team. You have to let them fight it out. Your job is to make sure everyone participates, and that it stays professional. Trading blows should not be encouraged or allowed.

It’s a good thing that human nature is a bit predictable. As it turns out, we humans don’t really have an ingrained need or desire to be right; in fact, even the most opinionated of us knows we can’t be right all the time. What is necessary is that everyone really feels like their opinion on a debated subject was actually heard and taken into account. For the really big decisions, like a 9-month tangible goal of the company, the team should be exhausted when the debate is over. It’s your job as the leader to determine when the debate should be over.

Typically, you will realize that there are no new arguments or positions, and that the team is now just cycling through the positions that have already been exposed. At some point you have to call the question. Just make sure everyone has been heard from. You may have to actually force some members to participate by calling them out.

Now it’s time to make a decision. You will be surprised to find that the executive team will buy into and commit to the ultimate decision, even if they don’t agree, because of the debate process. They feel their position was heard, and they were able to hear and debate other positions. This process is actually very cathartic and leads to tacit agreement to the decision.

In order to have an executive team that is willing to engage in this style of management, there has to be an elimination of the fear of conflict. The natural human state is to avoid conflict as much as possible. Getting a management team to engage in heated debate goes against every human instinct.

The members of the team must be comfortable that their opinions will not be taken personally, and that each member of the team has the company’s best interest in mind. They have to get to the point where they know the other members are not making personal attacks, and that they too have the company goals first and foremost in mind. In other words, there has to be a complete lack of fear of the conflict that must take place in order for great decisions and commitment to be made. This requires a high level of trust between the executives. Achieving this executive-level trust isn’t complicated, it’s just difficult.

I go into much more detail on this subject in my series on Why Teams Fail. Having a high-functioning executive team is critical to preventing and eliminating silos in the workplace.

2. Break down silos in the workplace with a defined corporate goal

Break down silos in the workplace with a defined corporate goal

Now that your executive team is working together, it’s time to create a single qualitative goal (the Corporate Goal) for the company. This goal has to be measurable and time based, so “increase sales” isn’t going to work. This measurable goal is not a long-term vision for the company, so “become number 1 in our market” isn’t going to work either. It also can’t be a tactical quantitative goal, like, “Sell $1 million worth of product this month”; this type of goal always exists.

This corporate goal is, by definition, a single qualitative goal shared by the entire executive team that applies only for a specific period of time – and creates some sense of urgency.

This is not to say that having shorter-term quantitative goals is bad, in fact, you need them as well. Having the overarching corporate goal, as defined here, will actually help define the more measurable and short-term goals as steps towards achieving the corporate goal.

I am also not suggesting that a larger mission statement type goal isn’t needed. Back in the 90’s, Coca Cola had a corporate mission statement, which was basically, “Within arm’s reach of every man, woman and child there should be a Coke product.” Great mission statement, terrible corporate goal, as it simply cannot be defined or time constrained.

The corporate goal needs to create a sense of urgency within the company. This doesn’t need to be anything dramatic, saying, “…or we will fail.” Yet it does have to create a sense that achieving this goal is more important than anything else the company is doing. This can get tricky.

Some examples of a Corporate Goal as defined here:

  • “Complete the Merger by year-end.” Maybe you just acquired a company and you are now seeing the internal mess that was created. Fixing that mess and integrating the various departments becomes critical before the conflicting departments eat each other.
  • “Rebuild our credibility in the market.” Perhaps a series of bad reviews has affected the reputation of the company. With today’s social media companies can quickly lose control of the narrative, regaining it can become pretty important.
  • “Reposition the company to gain new customers.” Maybe your market has flattened out and sales have plateaued. If the company is primarily known as providers of a specific software widget, working to position the company as something bigger might require new products and new marketing.
  • “Establish a broader market for our products/services.” Maybe it’s time to expand into another country to grow the company. Many startups start with an online presence. Eventually expanding distribution and maybe licensing will get the company into a bigger market.

Each of these are examples of an overarching corporate goal that is specific to a situation the company may find itself in. I believe it’s always possible to define such a goal based solely on the way companies and markets work. Maybe it’s a new competitor, market change or customer feedback driving the goal. Your new and well-functioning executive team can think about and debate this.

Ask yourselves the question, “What is the biggest current barrier to our continued success?” When I took over a troubled software company a number of years ago, in one of my first executive meetings, I asked the question, “What are we doing right?” That conversation went on for about an hour. Then I asked the question, “What are we doing wrong?” That conversation went on for three days and resulted in, once distilled, about 5 key issues that were plaguing the company. There were our medium-term corporate goals.

It’s okay to have more than one corporate goal at the same time. You don’t want to have more than a couple, and you want to make sure they are somewhat complementary to each other, but it’s always possible that there is more than one urgent need at any one time. Just be clear.

3. Break down silos in the workplace by defining key measurables

Break down silos in the workplace by defining key measurables

Once your executive team has established one or more corporate goals and some sense of the timeline (six months to a year is good, one month is too short), to continue breaking down silos in the workplace, it’s time to create the measurables that the executive team can debate and ultimately commit to achieving.

There will be times when the process of defining the key measurables and objectives changes the corporate goal a bit – this is normal. It’s important that the corporate goal be achievable in the established time frame. Creating the measurables will test this.

Ultimately every executive is going to commit to every key objective. You will find that marketing cannot achieve a certain objective without engineering achieving some other goal, and this cross-talk of objectives will go a long way toward preventing silos in the workplace. This creation of the overall objectives to support the corporate goal will probably take more than one meeting. It’s very important to get it right, and it’s very important that every executive commits to the whole process and the results.

It’s also important to know when a corporate goal has been achieved and to celebrate that achievement across the company. If the goal was to rebuild the credibility of the company, make sure the company knows that the goal has been achieved. Then define the next goal and continue the process. This whole scenario will create a healthy sense of urgency within the company and a sense of involvement in the progress that is shared by every employee.

I was fortunate early in my career to work for Intel back when it was a little $300 million company run by the late Andy Grove. Andy was a stickler for executive goals and measurables, and these goals and measurables were driven down into the entire organization all the way to the systems-level programmers, like me, who were just trying to make sense of things like the 8080 processor.

To this day, I remember the way in which this was done. It went like this:

Our department manager had their piece of the corporate goal at the time (I don’t remember what the specific goals were, it’s been a while), which they received from their staff meetings with their Group Manager and that they had committed to achieving. The group manager had key objectives that they had to meet as a result of divisional group objectives, and so on all the way to the top. We were all required monthly to come up with what were called Key Results, and these key results were created at the beginning of each month in our team meetings, run by our manager. Our key results for the coming month were based on our piece of the group objective, which in turn was a piece of the department objective, which in turn…. You get the idea. There was little doubt how our individual key results fit into the Intel Corporate Goal. In hindsight, it was pretty amazing how this was done. The process was completely ingrained into the company culture by Andy.

For each key result, we had to come up with the measurables. The measurables were how we would know when we were done. Each month in our monthly group meeting, we were required to put up our individual previous month’s key results and measurables, and then show how we either did or didn’t accomplish what we said we would do. We then had to put up our new key results and measurables for the coming month. We had significant peer pressure to achieve our key results, and our annual review included these statistics. You never wanted to have to stand up in front of the group and explain why you only met 50% of your measurables, and the group wouldn’t let anyone sandbag by establishing goals that were too easily met. Some groups would actually go through this process weekly.

Oh, and occasionally Andy Grove would pop in and sit through the meeting and ask questions. There was nothing more terrifying to a young programmer than to have to present their key results to Andy. I remember this happening to me three times in the four years I was there. It was truly terrifying.

So, key results would look like this:

Key Result: Release new program module to test team

As measured by:

  1. Get the code written
  2. Schedule and get through code review with rest of team.
  3. Get all developer testing done
  4. Get all developer documentation done
  5. Release to test team

Realize that this is a small cog in a small wheel driving a larger wheel. My manager would then take all of our key results for the coming month and create their key results for their manager. This would eventually roll all the way up to the corporate vice presidents who would present their key results to Andy. We used to complain about the amount of time we spent on this; it was probably 2.5 days per month, and we hated it, but we also knew why it was so important, so we did it. It created a tight and cohesive environment where nobody wanted to let the team down.

This may sound like a bottom-up approach to defining a corporate goal, but remember that the initial key objectives were created by, and handed down by, the executive team. It was then the lower-level managers who had to define their measurables to meet the corporate objectives. The key result process was simply the method each group had for measuring their progress.

There was never any question about the corporate goal. We had a new one every nine months or so, as determined by Andy’s executive team. Andy would name the corporate goal, so we all knew we were working on ‘Thunderbird’ or whatever.

The point of all this is first to establish the overarching corporate goal and timeline; then to establish the corporate goal key objectives on a regular basis (monthly is good) as an executive team along with the measurables to show that progress towards that corporate goal is being made; then hold each other accountable for the results. Each executive must then meet with their department managers and establish the key results that will allow the executive to meet theirs. This process continues down until every employee in the company has committed to achieving specific results that will drive the company towards the corporate goal. When this is done correctly, starting at the top, it becomes very difficult for silos to exist, which is the whole point of this series. If everyone is focused on the importance of the Corporate Goal and understands how their tasks fit into that goal, corporate silos disappear.

Yes, it’s time consuming and at times exhausting, but this is exactly what an executive team is supposed to be doing. It’s hard to come up with something more important short of some immediate emergency. It also creates an environment where the key executives are just as concerned with the key results of other departments as with their own. As a result, the executive team has a clear and committed direction goal, and as a group has committed to the things that have to happen to achieve that goal. They are then committed to holding each other accountable when the key results aren’t achieved in a particular month. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for empire building – peer pressure is a wonderful motivator.

4. Break down silos in the workplace with clear communication of the corporate goal

Break down silos in the workplace with clear communication of the corporate goal

We’ve discussed this a bit in my example from Intel. Some might argue that Andy Grove went too far (we certainly did every day back then, but in retrospect I think he was dead on right). Having worked in my formative years in that environment, then much later in my career at Microsoft, the power of this system and the totally destructive nature of silos I found at Microsoft were a powerful lesson to me.

Your ultimate goal as the leader of a startup should be to be able to ask any employee of your company what the corporate goal is, and they should be able to tell you. If you then ask them how what they are doing fits into that goal, they should be able to tell you that as well. There was never a time at Intel (I was there almost four years back in the very early 80’s) when I didn’t know the current corporate goal and how my job fit into it. Microsoft, on the other hand, was more like a seven-sided Rubik’s Cube. It was never clear what was going on in any particular direction or how my group fit into anything other than what my Corporate VP wanted us to do.

Now these were and are enormous companies, and chances are good that you aren’t running anything that size, so the task of eliminating silos in the workplace shouldn’t be that hard once you commit to it.

5. Break down silos in the workplace by monitoring progress towards goals

Break down silos in the workplace by monitoring progress towards goals

Each executive on your team needs to be able to show their key results and measurables for the previous month, as well as the next month, to the executive team. The executive team must hold the individual executive accountable for measurables and key results that are missed. And because each executive has driven this process down into their specific organizations, they will have that detail from their direct reports that provided the same information but at a lower level. It’s actually possible to pinpoint specific corporate and organizational issues through this process, because any missed objective can be traced back to a specific team or individual. Chronic issues tend to surface quickly and can be solved.

The overall beauty of this system of leadership and management is in its simplicity. When I talk about simplicity, I mean the concept is simple. The implementation is hard because you are dealing with humans who will resist all attempts to be managed in a particular direction. However, when done right and enforced at all levels, you will find that corporate clarity, corporate goal setting and accountability for results at every level are all by-products of your desire to eliminate silos.

So, the key to breaking down organizational silos and preventing them in your organization fall into five actions you can implement:

  1. Identify that you indeed have silos in your organization. This shouldn’t be hard, just listen carefully to the interactions between your executives. Silos, if they exist, will quickly reveal themselves.
  2. Get your executive team working as a team. This is going to be the hardest step and is likely going to take some time, but all efforts here will be greatly rewarded. Read my articles on Why Teams Fail for guidance on how to do this.
  3. Create medium-term corporate goals based on careful examination of your business. These need to be six to nine-month goals with some sense of urgency based on the needs of the company. Your executive team needs to come up with and own these goals, and it’s ok to have more than one.
  4. Communicate those goals to the entire organization. Your teams have to know what they are trying to accomplish and what they need to do individually to make it happen
  5. Create methods for monitoring progress towards goals at all levels of the organization. This is a critical component towards actually achieving the goal and is the process for keeping everyone on task.

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