The silo effect across teams

Have you ever felt happy in your own department where you have influence and the ability to make things happen, but you struggle when you need help from another department or organisation to deliver your objectives?

This is a pretty common problem. 

It can be compounded by a feeling that the people in the other team are not committed to the same outcomes as you. Even if they are, they may be too busy or not competent, or they may not share your values e.g. person-centred care, or maximising profitability.

I was once in a workshop with people engaged in providing services for older people, which included staff from social services, health and housing. Very soon we found that we required the older person to navigate several different organisations, funding streams, locations and venues in order to get even quite basic services met. Despite these issues being widely known and understood 20 years later, very little has changed.

Why is this?

The problem, I guess, is that every organisation and department has its own boundaries. As individuals we see the world through our own eyes – distinguishing instinctively between Me and Not-me. I don’t, for example, expect someone else to meet my every need (as I may have done as a baby and child). Equally I broadly decide how I spend my evenings, subject to a range of obligations that are personal to me. If I want to go out to a film with my daughter, I will have to convince her to spend time with me often against many competing delights.  We have to agree on the film, the venue and seats. We have to agree on who is paying, which screening suits us and how to get there. We manage to negotiate this without much thought most of the time.

It is similar with our organisations. Most organisations involve several dozen employees, or more. We have to work with others to take joint responsibility for the successful running of our own department or team. But our job description, delegated power, authority levels, team requirements etc, determine what we can do and what is not down to us. We often need to work with other teams or organisations. Like my daughter, the other department has a similar demarcation around its work and responsibilities. However, just as in life, we generally require other teams and individuals to interact with us to get anything done. No-one is an island.

Of course it is very easy to say something like:

  • The facilities team are useless and so rude!
  • Martha’s team are lazy – they never respond to emails

Why do we frequently label a whole department and describe them in unflattering terms? Usually because we feel they have let us down more than once and it is easier to blame or label them than it is to sort it out. Over time we project bad things into facilities or Martha’s department and the myth grows and builds. New people are told that it’s not even worth asking facilities for help as they are “hopeless”, “incompetent” etc. This activity makes our team feel superior as all the useless staff is in another team. Our team is great, hard working, intelligent etc.

Can you see what is happening?

I would suggest that the key thing is to try to understand what the other team or department is trying to achieve. The finance department, for example, is engaged in ensuring that money is spent cost-effectively, properly, in line with our internal controls and regulations. They have to do this in line with clear procedures and time frames. This is to guard against fraud and waste, for example. So although I need this invoice paying – it helps that I understand the context of my request – say the fact that there are 60,000 invoices that need paying each year. If I don’t get my invoice paid straightaway I need to be patient and understanding. If I am generally understanding and empathetic I expect that the team will help me if I really need something expedited. It is of course easier to understand how a team operates in our own organisation as we can go and talk to them.

One of my colleagues here at Notting Hill Housing always talks about people in other teams by name, rather than department e.g. “Go and see Julian”, rather than “You need to talk to Asset Management”. Once we humanise our colleagues and see them as having exactly the same stresses and competing demands as we have, we can finally find a way to work effectively with them.

In my experience, and to go back to that example about older people’s care, once two or more teams focus on outcomes it can be possible to change systems and approaches to make things better for the client or customer. It is usually really hard work to commit to re-engineering systems and to change our way of working. To do this with another organisation requires trust, a willingness to be flexible and compromise, and sometimes even the sharing of budgets and other resources. It is even more difficult than within one organisation. It can be done but the motivation and leadership need to be exceptionally strong.

What's your experience of overcoming silos?

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Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.