Breaking Down Functional Silos

How dividing your teams can hinder your growth (and what to do about it!)

Spike Team
By Spike Team, Updated on February 15, 2023, 8 min read
Breaking Down Functional Silos

What are Functional Silos?

A Functional silo at work is the separation of team members based on their function or the compartmentalization of your workforce by role. The name refers to grain-storage silos, vertical containers being fed from the top, each isolated from the others. Teams, however, don’t need to be separated like grain, and doing so is detrimental to the company. 


In enterprise, functional silos lead to two broad situations: the separation of resources and the territorialization of the workplace. 


The first situation, which deals with more tangible resources, means that there is no transfer of people between the vertical containers, nor the expertise and fresh ideas they bring. When there are functional silos, people are limited to the group in which they are placed. This means managers cannot access the best resources, talent, and information they need for a project because they are “outside” of their silo. 


The territorialization of the workplace refers to how, when placed in a silo, teams quickly develop an “us vs. them” attitude. They consider work or projects as “theirs” rather than something that can be extended across the entire company. It creates divided groups. While sometimes this can be as simple as a snarky remark about HR, it can also cause deep rifts in the long run, creating a hostile work environment and eventually hindering your company as a whole.


What are the Advantages of Breaking Functional Silos?

When companies are separated into rigid silos, whether explicitly or not, each group begins to operate as a unit. While this can be beneficial in some ways, it eventually leads to a lack of cohesion throughout the company. Departments will work towards what “they” have to do rather than the broader company objectives. 


Similarly, when a team or individual takes ownership of a project in the sense that they lead the drive and stay accountable, that’s great! However, the type of “ownership” encouraged by functional silos is not one of responsibility but of exclusion. If you can’t draw from your total pool of talent, knowledge, and resources, you’re never going to be as good as you could be. 


Silos mean valuable insights and potential solutions from other departments are either overlooked or, worse, disregarded. And this has a real financial impact on businesses, with one survey finding that eighty-three experienced executives estimated that they lost more than $7,000 a day due to silos


However, breaking down functional silos isn’t just about addressing problems. It’s been found that when these narrow vertical containers are broken, and collaboration is encouraged across a company, those businesses have greater client loyalty, gain a competitive edge, and earn higher margins. 


It isn’t just the company that benefits either, but each team member as well. There is the apparent advantage that if people don’t feel territorial at work, they will avoid lousy office politics and be upset. Moreover, when people reach outside of their department, they can learn more and gain skills faster, improving their professional development. 


For freelancers or those offering professional services, collaboration can also increase referrals from out-of-silo colleagues, translating into increased personal revenue. Additionally, the growth of skills from other disciplines essentially diversifies you as a professional, which can help isolate you from economic downturns or downsizing when specialties can suffer. 


How to Encourage Breaking Silos in an Organization

Breaking Down Functional Silos


By this point, we can probably all agree that: 

  1. Functional silos are bad for businesses and the people who work in them. 

  2. Breaking silos has massive benefits for the company and the individual team members. 

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So, it’s simple then? We break them down. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Isolated, vertical silos have been such a big part of company culture and organization for so long that breaking out of them takes a concerted effort. You’ll have to employ several tactics to encourage the shift from insular departments to collaborative dream teams, but it is possible, and here’s where to start.



Create Collaboration Leads

There are almost certainly already people at your company who are great at breaking down barriers and working with individuals across every department. While right now they might be the outlier, you need to nurture them into silo-busting leads. These collaborative individuals should be embedded in cross-functional teams to help build cooperation and remove barriers. This can work in a couple of different ways. 


First, they can act as a go-between for existing departments. This is ideal for people who already have one foot in each silo, and they can bridge the knowledge gap to get two groups working cohesively. While this type of role can help slowly break down silos, it is more useful in the short term when you’re transitioning away from traditional company structures. 


Secondly, your collaboration leads can act like mixed with a marriage counselor. They bring people together and foster a relationship that is set to last long term. They don’t work as a go-between for the different silos but rather connect members from each group and develop their collaborative skills. This builds a network of non-isolated individuals throughout the company, working outside their silos and growing the company culture as a whole. 



Foster a Culture of Curiosity

People often fear what they don’t understand, and nobody should be afraid of the marketing department. One of the best ways to break down silos is to encourage people to understand more about the departments outside of their own day-to-day work—and one of the best ways to understand more is to ask more questions. 


Fostering a culture of curiosity means creating a workplace where people aren’t afraid to ask, “what does that do?” and “why is it done this way?”. As people learn more about other silos, the barriers that divide them will begin to crumble. What’s more, often it’s through these questions and an entirely new perspective that out-of-the-box solutions will present themselves. 



Lead by Example

If you don’t show curiosity, how can you expect the rest of your team to? Nobody knows everything, and that includes people in management. Not only should you be unafraid of asking questions, but you should make a pointed effort to do so in a public way.


Leading by example by genuinely trying to learn about the inner workings of departments outside of your own is a big step towards breaking down silos. Seeing those in higher positions ask questions will encourage the practice throughout the company and make team members more comfortable in asking questions themselves. 



Train Your Employees

Breaking Down Functional Silos


Not all questions are created equal, and without some kind of direction, natural inquisitiveness could lead to off-topic or overly aggressive question-asking. Training employees in the art of questioning may seem a little odd, but the long-term benefits will almost certainly make it worthwhile. 


So what do good questions look like?


Questions for collaboration should start broad and then focus on a point. This means that the first questions should be open-ended (not yes or no), encouraging a more rounded response and reducing the impact of preconceptions and bias. For example:


“What are your thoughts on this new direction?”


“Do you think this direction is right?”


The latter shuts down the conversation before it’s begun, and if coming from a person in a position of authority, it could prompt the team member to answer “yes” or “no” in line with what they think a manager wants to hear. 


After this, questions should try to focus on the specifics while still leaving space for the other person to elaborate. This process stops you from drifting off-topic and shows that you actively listen to what they say. 


As the conversation develops, it’s essential to ask questions that clarify that you’ve understood. Outline what you think they’ve explained, and follow it up with something like, “Is there something I’ve missed?” This again keeps both parties on track, cements your understanding of the topic, and demonstrates an active interest. 


It’s also essential to gauge the other person’s engagement in the process from time to time with questions such as “how do you think the work is going?”. These should be open enough for genuine feedback but still on topic. 


What’s more, many people’s natural sense of curiosity is trained out of them as they are told they must specialize. Making an effort to train employees in asking questions and building new knowledge can spark a passion for learning that had long been extinguished. Give it a try, and you might be surprised. 



Create Silo-free Spaces

While we would like to think that these cross-collaborative conversations will just emerge naturally, that’s not always the case. And as with any type of education, work or process, giving people the space to do it is really important. 


Consider replacing presentations with workshops, so information doesn’t travel down a silo or even from one to the other but instead becomes a two-way process between departments. These silo-free spaces are where team members will start to develop the skills needed for more cross-company collaboration and become more comfortable with the other aspects such as asking questions and being curious. The short dialogues will help prepare people for larger collaborative projects. 



Bring in Employees from a Variety of Groups Together on Initiatives

Among the most significant steps in breaking down functional silos is bringing in a diverse mix of people for a specific issue, topic, or initiative. People from multiple silos should be brought together along with one of your collaboration leads to contribute their ideas and expertise (using their new question techniques) to tackle the task as a cohesive but diverse team. 


This process brings into practice the benefits outlined at the start, as members learn from each other and bring new ideas to the table. 


The End of Functional Silos – Summary

Functional silos have been a part of companies for decades, so they aren’t going to be broken down overnight. However, creating an environment of collaboration, nurturing individuals who embody these values, giving them the space required, and then actually following through with cross-silo initiatives will put you and your company on the right path. For more tips on productive and innovative workplaces, subscribe to the Spike blog or Tweet us @SpikeNowHQ.

Spike Team
Spike Team The Spike team posts about productivity, time management, and the future of email, messaging and collaboration.

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