The Cold War was “a prolonged battle of wills, posturing and threats between communist Russia and the United States of America. Although no direct military conflict between the two nations ever ensued, the world was caught up in the constant threat of nuclear proliferation,”  . . . “not leading to direct battle and subsequent death, but rather an ongoing disposition between the two parties which never amounted to peace.”
In organizations there can also be a type of cold war. This is where departments see other departments as a threat and this results in ongoing conflict between them. The organization operates with constant feelings of competition and lack of trust. It is known that if conflict erupts then it could lead to war, so there develops a cold war culture of political maneuvering and power plays. For the purpose of this article, we will borrow the managerial concept of “silos.”
What is a “silo” in an organization?
“Organizational silos are when individual people, departments, or companies, conduct business in a vacuum, without taking into consideration the impact their actions have on the entire organization. The term silo literally means a “storage tower,” “ a tall, cylindrical building that separates and stores material on a farm.”
Silos develop when there is no overarching vision, various departments view other departments as competition instead of fellow teammates, resources are not centralized systematically or thoughtfully dispersed, and the leadership culture changes regularly.
The following is a list of what happens in an environment where organizational silos exist:
- Limiting Information – Information is shared only with select committees, or individuals and plans are not shared with other departments. Information is either consciously or subconsciously kept secret or only a select few are allowed into the “knowledge circle.” The idea being that “this information does not involve their department, so why would we let them know this information?” In other words, collaboration and idea sharing between departments is very limited or simply doesn’t exist.
Because other departments are viewed as competitors, this ability to manage and control information puts one department in a better place to harness the resources they feel they need over another department. All departments see information as power chips to be negotiated and used for leverage.
In a silo environment knowledge is power.
- Departmental Events – Various departments hold events or organize a specific campaign and no other departments see it as their responsibility to make this event a success. Success for the event rests on the individual department leader’s shoulders alone. If it is a success or failure it is no one’s fault but the leaders.
This also leads to different definitions of success for individual departments. Different definitions of success lead to eventual conflict over expectations. Those that succeed in this environment are those that can go out and gather (personnel, donations, budget, etc.) the best. Staff can grow frustrated as their definition of success does not match the hidden unwritten organizational definition for success.
According to this way of thinking if there is a problem they see it as, “being either all yours to deal with or not yours to deal with at all.”
In a silo environment the leader must be successful
(But who knows what “success” means?)
- Separate Decision Making – All leaders are not involved in decisions that effect the organization as a whole. Examples of this may be hiring of staff, budgeting, organizational wide campaigns, facility development, etc. Staff and volunteers grow frustrated as decisions are made that affect them and their department but they had no or very limited input to the process.
In a silo environment you are always reacting to problems (or other leader’s decisions), instead of being proactive toward improvement.
- Slow or No Change – Since departments are not working together and have individual free standing goals and objectives, budgets, resources, and personnel there is no grand or “big picture” oversight of the organization as a whole. One department may do very well, or fail miserable but the organization, and how it functions as a whole, changes little. They do not change or adapt as society changes. In fact, they pride themselves in their lack of change.
No one is asking the hard questions of how the unit is functioning as a whole, instead upper level management is focused on keeping everyone happy. So if one uses last years model (where everyone was happy), then why change how things function going into the future? If one department is doing poorly, it is understood that the leader needs to be replaced instead of looking at how all of the departments are working together to make it a success. It is much easier to replace a leader than to ask the hard questions as to why he/she failed.
In a silo environment it is better to keep things the same.
- No Common Vision – Each department has it own vision for where it feels it should go, but other departments and their visions are not taken into account when originating these goals. Often times these visions may even be in direct conflict with other departments. If there is no common vision and departments operate individually, then there are no feelings of responsibility for the organization as a whole.
If the organization fails, but the individual leader’s department was doing well, that leader feels that they did a good job, and feels no responsibility for the organizations failure.
In a silo environment it is common to hear, “that’s not my department.”
- Competition Between Departments – In any environment resources are always limited. There are only so many people who will volunteer, give, and support an organization. In a silo environment department leaders compete for these resources. No concern is given as to whether or not a given person would function better in another department, or if other departments need stockpiled resources.
Because management’s goal is to keep everyone happy, monies and personnel are not moved from one department to another even if growth or decline has taken place. Individual’s specific talents and gifts are not considered and are expected to stay where they are. Since there is no common vision, each department struggles to ensure their vision is heard and resources are garnered to support it.
Even though the individual leaders know there is a problem (or problems) and they may be intellectually bright, the organization as a whole makes foolish decisions because each department fears that change will cost them individually. If there is a change that helps the organization as a whole, but hurts their department they are resistant to this change.
In a silo environment the other departments are the enemy, and they are involved in a cold war no one wants to talk about.
- Wasted or Underutilized Resources – With silos there is duplication of resources. All departments feel as though they need their own staff, stuff, and facility. The idea of sharing these things never even enters into their decision-making. So buildings sit empty, machines sit unused, and staff are limited in hours where as they could be full-time.
In a silo environment there is significant wasting of resources.
What’s the Cost of Having Missile Silos In Your Backyard?
When organizations function with departmental silos the potential of the organization is greatly limited, they are resistant to change thereby becoming obsolete, and creativity is crushed by feelings of competition. It is simply easier to do things as they have always been done before. There is no incentive to help another department, “when they look bad, it makes us safe or look good for the moment.”