Did you see the recent footage of a family being dragged away by a sudden rip at Panama City Beach in Florida? It was terrifying. As other beach goers, moments before enjoying the sand and sea, stood on the shore watching helplessly, the family became increasingly distressed and stranded. Everyone was scared that if they tried to help, they would also get stuck.
A couple of brave individuals did try to help and nine people ended up stranded in the rip.
A witness on the beach said: ‘They were screaming and crying that they were stuck.’
Then one couple made up their minds. They said: ‘These people are not drowning today, it’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.’
The wife grabbed a boogie board and the husband started to urge others to form a human chain. They soon convinced more than 80 people to link arms and wade out into the water, creating a chain over 90 meters long. The woman then ferried each of the nine drowning people the final few meters to safety on her boogie board.
No-one died on the beach that day.
It’s amazing when we connect with each other, when we trust in our shared vision, what we can achieve.
Imagine how different work might be if we felt like that. Truly purposeful, actually connected. Together, capable of anything.
Perhaps we can choose to pause and link arms. It’s a powerful image isn’t it? So, what’s getting in our way?
It is the hard to see, silent killers of productivity and engagement – silos.
We all know that silos exist, we talk about our organisations being ‘siloed’ – and we know that connecting the various silos in our business can transform productivity and engagement – but how well can we really identify all of the silos impacting our team? And once we know they are there, what can we do about them?
What are silos and how do they happen?
Silos develop because we humans like to classify things – it’s the equivalent of a neurological filing system – where people ‘fit’, where we ‘fit’, which parts go together (and which don’t) – we make assumptions about what separates us and then wonder why we don’t connect effectively with individuals or entire areas in our organisations.
We have to un-learn these assumptions about ourselves and others and start to see the value of connecting – more deeply and definitely more broadly in our organisations.
Hone your silo spotting skills
If you want to get better at understanding where work gets stuck in your business, look out for these five characteristics of a silo:
A highly specialised, disconnected team or department
Internal competitiveness or ‘patch protection’ over resources (people and budget)
Defensiveness and blaming other departments
Projects, communication and work getting ‘stuck’ in bottlenecks
A high level of internal politics.
Don’t bust silos, build bridges
Silos aren’t all bad – they help us to specialise and clarify, to organise the large amounts of information that are necessary in a complex organisation. Trying to ‘bust’ all of the silos without understanding what is useful about them is another form of blinkered thinking that will only increase our focus on what is not working, rather than what we could achieve – if we connect with each other.
Rather than destroying silos, we need to build bridges between them. When information and people can move easily between silos we can breathe new life and ideas into what could otherwise become rigid echo chambers.
We’ve been taught throughout our lives that we need to do our work individually – we are assessed and tested individually. To create real change, we need to (each of us) overcome the entrenched belief that we are ‘in this on our own’.
As leaders, we need to cultivate a genuine curiosity about other parts of the organisation and follow that curiosity up with action.
Being able to identify the silos that are getting your work, projects and people stuck – and then being able to build bridges and ‘un-stick’ them is a key leadership skill for the future.
Be the difference
We need to role model the behaviours we want to create – actively building relationships in different areas – not just the areas that are useful to our specific objectives. We need to cross not just departments, but levels of hierarchy. We need to learn to work effectively with, and recruit, people who are different from us. We need to ‘go first’ and be vulnerable enough to build social connection and play a central role in connecting others from disparate parts of the business.
Facebook take their awareness of silos seriously. In addition to many other actions, when Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook requires a ‘private space’, he works in what is known as ‘Mark’s goldfish bowl’, a glass-lined space next to a much used employee walkway, to ensure he is visible and accessible.
When we truly collaborate with one another, we are stronger than we think.
It’s time we turned back towards one another and recognise the patch protecting, competitive behaviour as part of the system. Maybe, some of the people you think are being difficult to work with, highly political or defensive, are actually drowning, caught in a rip.
Together, we can link arms and make change happen.
We are, after all, in this together.