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Silos and Turf Wars: What are Organizational Silos and Why Do They Exist

organizational silos

Silos and turf wars

We have all most likely seen organizational silos, or turf wars, in action in our careers. Different departments fight for budget dollars, head count and control over direction, seemingly intent on winning no matter the effect on the overall company. Information sharing between teams becomes scarce as information becomes power in the silo game.

This is so common it is almost considered normal in the corporate environment. In large corporations, silos can get so intense as to bring the competitive drive of the company to a halt – without the active participants having any idea of the damage being caused. In smaller startups, organizational silos can be fatal to the company as infighting for resources consumes energy better spent on becoming successful – and silos may even destroy the company if left unchecked.

What are organizational silos?

silos definition

Silos definition

The term “silo” generally refers to the large structures (most often seen in agriculture) used to separate different types of bulk materials, such as grain. You’ve almost certainly seen these large cylindrical towers on farms, and maybe you’ve even wondered what the heck is inside of them. Most likely you’ll just find grain inside these silos, but they can also be used for other bulk materials such as food products, sawdust, wood chips, coal, and even cement.

Organizational silos definition

While agricultural silos refer to the separation and storage of assets vital to a farm, organizational silos refer to the separation of a different kind of asset vital to an organization: people. Organizational silos in business terms is defined as the separation of different types of employees, often defined by the department in which they work.

When a specific department is working efficiently, like a well-oiled machine, one would think this is an obvious plus for the business as a whole. However, when employees in one department fail to interact effectively and efficiently with those in other departments, business operations can start to suffer, resulting in lost revenue and even turf wars between departments. In effect, these organizational silos can become huge barriers within a company and can be very difficult to break down once in place, and that’s exactly why we’re introducing a 3-part series on this very topic – Silos and Turf Wars.

Why do organizational silos exist?

Why do organizational silos exist

In business it is ultimately a failure of leadership that allows organizational silos to form and exist. It starts, and ultimately ends, at the top. If we can peek into the conference room of a leadership team, we will begin to see the symptoms of silos and the related causes. Watching the interactions between the members of the leadership team will usually reveal behaviors that create and enforce silos.

Organizational silos form when leaders, and ultimately employees, are allowed to develop more loyalty to a specific group or team than to the employer or company as a whole.

When silos exist, employees become more insular and distrustful of other departments, making it increasingly difficult for groups to work together. Information sharing grinds to a halt. We see this in the interactions in meetings. Team members are careful about what is shared, reluctant to really participate in debates and generally non-communicative.

The unfortunate reality is many companies regularly create environments that allow organizational silos to grow and flourish. Lack of direction from the top regarding overarching corporate goals, fostering an environment of mistrust and a lack of formal communication gives tacit permission for leaders and employees to form silos.

When the executive team believes their loyalty is based in their division of the company, and not the company as a whole, silos form.

What causes organizational silos?

What causes organizational silos

1. Lacking a team mentality

A common cause of organizational silos is a lack of understanding as to how a particular department or team fits into the bigger picture, causing the executive or leader in charge of that team to focus on what we can refer to as local goals vs. company goals. Let’s use a competitive sports team as an example. If players on a team are focused on their individual statistics, then they don’t really care if the team wins or loses so long as they look good.

We have seen the basketball player shooting 3-pointers instead of passing inside; baseball players focused on home runs over necessary singles; football players demanding the ball be thrown to them regardless of the situation on the field. In a team sport, if every team member isn’t focused on the overall goal of winning the game, they generally don’t do well even if there is a standout player on the team.

Business is much the same. Silos are created when the individual departments lose sight of the overarching goal of market success and instead focus on departmental goals. In sports, it’s the fault of the coach when this occurs. In business, it’s the leadership.

2. Competing for resources

Organizational silos can also exist because groups are forced to compete for resources. This happens every budget cycle and every discussion about additional headcount. These discussions are typically run as a zero-sum game, meaning if a dollar or head goes to one department, another department does without. Unfortunately, this situation is actually true as few companies have unlimited budgets, so the pie has to be shared.

This obviously becomes very competitive as the executives are only focused on the needs of their team, not the company. The term empire building comes to mind. Specifically in larger companies, but also true in startups, size matters. Nobody wants to be leading a small team, and typically being the person in charge of a large organization brings some form of status within the company. It becomes all about the additional head or the additional financial resources – all while the overarching goals of the company are ignored.

3. Lack of communication