Feeling isolated, disengaged, like your manager doesn't care about what you're doing, or like your work doesn't matter? You may be working in a silo.

But what is a silo? According to author and management expert, Patrick Lencioni's book Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, silos are “the barriers that come between different parts of an organization, which cause people who should be on the same team to work against each other.”

This has other names as well: departmental politics, divisional rivalries or turf wars. They all lead to the same result — a dysfunctional company that won't last long.

People don't want to be in a silo. No one likes politics, confusion and infighting. People want to work together. But if all they see is other people fighting—manager against manager, developers against marketing, sales against everyone—that's all they'll know. Your team just needs to be equipped with the tools and opportunities to help the company get to a place of collaboration and communication.

In Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, Lencioni talks about how organizations can overcome “silos” through a dynamic leadership fable. He then presents his solution for how you can implement it in your own organization.

The Fable of Jude & the Business Without Silos

Our story begins with Jude, an entrepreneurial hopeful with years of experience in business and sales, who decides to start his own company. Jude creates Cousins Consulting, which focuses on providing general expertise in marketing and operational effectiveness. To gain clients, he leans on his reputation and connections.

The first few months of the business are super successful. Clients come pounding at the door. The prestigious Madison Hotel and JMJ Fitness Machines, whose CEO Brian Bailey refers him to other customers, like the Children's Hospital make life sweet.

But success doesn't last. Jude starts losing clients who are impressed with his work—a little too impressed. He does such a good job that his clients are able to take his teachings and apply them within the rest of the company on their own. Jude realizes that he has two main problems:

  1. He needs more clients. There's enough money to pay the bills for six months; beyond that the future looks bleak.
  2. He needs something to sell to those clients.

After scrambling through his notes for a solution Jude realizes something big — all of his clients have the same problem: silos. They call it different things: departmental politics, or infighting, or lack of divisional cooperation, but it all boils down to the same thing.

A Business with No Silos

Jude decides to approach his old clients with his new findings. Most companies have the same reaction: they acknowledge that they have this issue and want Jude's help to fix it. Everyone except JMJ Fitness. Brian doesn't think they have a silo problem. He even invites Jude to investigate to see if he's right. And sure enough, after talking with employees, Jude isn't able to find any signs of a silo problem. It's baffling.

After digging deeper, Jude discovers that JMJ Fitness faced a big scandal a few months ago that forced the company to get back on their game or die. A minor celebrity had gotten injured on one of their treadmills. Then a combination of bad press and even worse advice from lawyers lost JMJ many customers. But looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to the company.

The crisis forced them to rebuild their reputation, fix relationships and repair internal company morale. They had to or risk losing the company. Everyone rallied around the goal of: keeping the company afloat. They set out a plan to achieve it, including things like breaking down the silos that had formed, and worked together to fix the company.

Brian's story helps Jude figure out how to approach his other customers. He realizes that finding a goal to rally behind is the surest way to bring any company together. If executives  aren't convinced that they need a complete revamp and think their operations run smoothly enough, he asks them, “why wait for a crisis?”. And sure enough, they get on board.

The Moral: Rally Around a Common Goal

Lencioni developed a procedure to combat silos that focused on building around a thematic goal.

[Adapted from Table Group]

It consisted of four steps.

Step 1: Force the executive team to come together and decide on a rallying cry, or thematic goal

A thematic goal is defined as a single, qualitative focus that the entire leadership team, and ultimately the entire organization, shares. It applies for only a specified period of time. There are a few things your team should make sure of when deciding on what this goal is:

  • There can only be one goal. It has to be the most important goal with the highest priority.
  • It shouldn't be a number like $10M MRR or a number of leads generated. Make it a general statement of a desired accomplishment.
  • There should be an end-date or a time-frame to completion. It shouldn't be an ongoing objective, or your team will never achieve it.
  • It needs to be something that is important to every department and everyone in the company. Everyone needs to rally behind it for it to succeed.

Step 2: Have the team come up with defining objectives to accomplish to meet that goal

These defining objectives are qualitative components of the thematic goal that all members of the team share. They clarify how everyone in the company can help meet this goal. Again, make sure that these goals are:

  • Qualitative rather than quantitative. It may be tempting to attach a number to these objectives, but these numbers are more limiting than they are motivational. Team members who feel like they cannot directly contribute to the number won't feel like they can get involved.
  • Every member of the management team should be held directly accountable for each objective, regardless if it's outside of their functional expertise.
  • There needs to be a deadline that syncs up with that of the thematic goal because the team should achieve each objective en route to reaching the thematic goal.

Step 3: Make sure the team also identifies standard operating objectives, which are different from the defining objectives, but just as important

While defining objectives are specific to the thematic goal, the company will still have standard operating objectives that need to be achieved as well. These are the ongoing priorities of the organization, shared by all members of the team, that are necessary for the company to run on a day-to-day basis. These include things like revenue, expenses, customer satisfaction, and productivity.

The importance of differentiating between these objectives and the defining objectives is to make sure you decide on a thematic goal that employees feel motivated to rally behind. Most people won't really feel excited about fulfilling a goal that says “cut costs” or “make this much profit”.

Step 4: Determine metrics for ongoing measurement to make sure the team is on track to meet their objectives

Once you flesh out all your objectives, you need to come up with metrics that will help you measure effectiveness. These aren't necessarily quantifiable numbers. Come up with due dates to meet objectives or something else decisive to determine success or failure.

These metrics keep teams from arguing about priorities. If an initiative has no measurable impact, then it's clear that it's not a real priority.

Every company will have different goals and different ways of reaching them. But as long as the objectives are clear and teams rally around them unanimously, the company will be well on its way to breaking down silos.

Why Wait for a Crisis?

Consider asking yourself the same question Jude asked his clients: Why wait for a crisis to implement such an important change in your company? Sure there might not be problems yet, but you never know what might happen weeks or months down the road. Start the conversation about the possibility of silos now and improve company health.

Want to know more about silos? We've written three whole blog posts on the subject. We discuss 1-how to determine if you're in a silo, 2-warning signs to keep an eye out for and 3-tools your company can use to help you move toward a culture of communication and transparency.