Can Restructuring Break Down Organisation Silos?

One way organisations try to improve collaboration is to restructure, for example moving from a functional, hierarchical to a matrix structure. Structures do need to be contingent and in today’s world there is a need for more cross-functional as well as inter-organisation working. But does structural change lead to the changes in working relationships needed to achieve the required results? My answer is: only if the relationships are given equal attention alongside other aspects of business planning and delivery.

People in organisations default naturally to silo working. Two key personal benefits of silo working mentioned in my book – what people hang on to – are belonging and control. These are fundamental desires that people have at different stages of relationship development (Schutz 1988). Some of the things they don’t like about ‘out of silo’ working are:

  • The potential lack of clarity
  • Increased workload
  • Trusting others that they perceive as less capable
  • The complexity of dealing with different people
  • Compromising on preferred ways of doing things

In short, it’s about comfort with the familiar, including relationships, and retaining a sense of control. People want to do what they came to do, such as focus on their specialist work and deliver results – preferably without the delays that wider engagement might involve. This affects the level of contact and degree of openness that people need to work together within teams and across organisations.

One implication is that working relationships may not be aligned with new governance structures. Some people will continue to get things done in a way they are used to and through people they feel comfortable with. This can lead to confusion and stress in the organisation as the necessary adaptations are not realised.

Work on developing new relationships needs to happen at strategic and operational levels – getting the right operating framework in place and making sure that changes in working relationships are built into the day-to-day work, for example projects with relationship and decision-making plans. Work I have done with leaders and teams has helped them examine their current networks and reconfigure them according to the priorities of the new context. They can be surprised how much time and energy they are putting into relationships that are no longer a priority, sometimes because those people are also investing their time and energy in them – and that feels good! They may need to maintain working relationships, but realign them with the new governance arrangements.

The complexity of organisations and change can reinforce a natural tendency to work in silos. Unless time and energy is put into developing working relationships following a restructuring, serious business consequences can emerge.

David Willcock
Director/Leadership Coach
Liberating Potential Ltd.

A New Relationship Agenda for HR?

The need for HR Directors to examine their approach to relationship management is the subject of my feature article on the HRZone website this month.

David Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.

Making Sense for Change

Lack of awareness of being in a silo, never mind the impact and implications of silo working, came up a lot in research interviews. Increased awareness provides a context for change (Arnold Beisser, 1970). It can shine a light on previously unconscious barriers and facilitate natural change. Awareness in relation to others creates a different ‘sense’ of the situation and can mobilise energy to take fresh action. We cannot easily carry on acting as we did in the changed context.

Busy managers in organisations spend a lot of time and energy ‘doing’ things because that’s what they are paid to do for the most part and it also fits with their preferences. Their default behaviour is to focus on their own and their teams’ work and results. The perception is that others are too busy — they must be because they are. It’s much quicker to just get on with things and do it themselves anyway. They protect their own overworked colleagues and potentially go into a bunker when things get more difficult. They become blinkered and just don’t see that they are ‘silo working’. It’s out of awareness.

Spending time in awareness and sense-making can be frustrating and feel like a waste of time. However, as the old saying goes, if you keep on doing the same things, you’ll keep on getting the same results. If we don’t keep the tendency towards silo working in our awareness and keep working at it, we revert to default behaviour and personal comfort zones. One of the key qualities of leaders who role model collaboration that came up repeatedly in research interviews was the ability to take a step back, to make sense of what’s going on and to explore the wider and deeper issues. Some referred to it as a problem-solving ability, but what they did was engage with others to explore issues and arrive at collaborative solutions. A lot of the paradoxes and problems in organisations today are too complex for individuals to solve on their own. The new paradigm is participation, involvement and collaboration. Keeping things ‘simple’ can be an avoidance of dealing with the complexity. This complexity is more often than not in our relationships with each other.

We need to reflect, and learn individually and with others, in order to continue to feed our awareness and capacity to respond in a rapidly changing and uncertain world.

Extract from Collaborating for Results: Silo Working and Relationships that Work (also available on Amazon)

David Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.

Silo Working and Existential Concerns

A deep level of human concern that can contribute to problems in working relationships and silo working is the existential concerns that we all face, consciously or unconsciously, and that we need to reconcile. Four central concerns based on the work of Irvin D. Yalom (Existential Psychotherapy, 1980) are:

  • Our vulnerability — acceptance of how vulnerable we are in a life lived in awareness of mortality
  • Freedom — accepting that we have freedom of choice and that we are the architects of our own lives
  • Isolation — recognising that we enter and leave the world on our own and are ultimately separated from other people and the world itself
  • Search for meaning — the recognition that the universe itself contains no inherent meaning for the life we have.

On the normal distribution curve of society people will populate different positions in relation to these concerns and respond in different ways. The majority are likely to be accepting of life’s predicaments but find different ways of coping. Typical ways of dealing with these concerns are:

  • Getting ‘wrapped up’ in what you do. The extreme would be the ‘workaholic’, but losing yourself in any activity can be a way to avoid a number of these concerns on a day-to-day basis
  • Following routines, taking comfort in the familiar and hanging on to what we know
  • Developing defensive routines to protect ourselves — such as from the hurt or harm that being in ‘close’ relationships can cause — which can manifest in relationships as manipulation and avoidance
  • Adopting a cause, something that provides meaning.

The typical ways of dealing with existential concerns point to some of the ways relationships in organisations can be affected. The main issue is people’s attitude to change. People may not adapt to changes because they hang on to the tried and trusted ways in order to maintain the status quo. They avoid the uncertainty of change and therefore the need to face up to the existential concerns. Change means that we need to face our vulnerability, take responsibility, develop new relationships and find new meaning in the changed situation.

A simple example of this type of concern is the ‘office move’, the words that strike fear into even the most accomplished manager! The energy and anguish that typically goes into preserving space, familiar items and proximity to familiar people takes a lot of managing and negotiation. People form strong attachments to non-animate objects like desks, never mind the relationships they have with others.

More importantly for silo working, people get into a comfort zone of relationships in their work. Not only to get things done, but also because they hang on to the familiar and what works for them. Working differently in order to develop cross-functional relationships can challenge our tried and tested ways of being and doing things, and make us feel more vulnerable or exposed. We most likely will need to change our beliefs and behaviours and possibly our view of ourselves. Familiarity gives way to uncertainty and the need to take responsibility in the new situation. I see a lot of examples in organisations where a change in relationships and ways of working are needed but nobody is seeking the change. Often there are layers of avoidance and reasons why things have to stay the same.

Similarly a lot of people leave their careers to chance, being opportunistic when vacancies crop up and often getting locked into following the processes of the organisations they work for. They don’t take a proactive approach, thinking carefully about their needs and wants. Again, they rest on the familiar and hope that others will somehow recognise and reward them. The number of times I’ve spoken to managers who have said: ‘I should have taken more risks earlier in my career’. This also has implications for silo working as movement of personnel can build cross-organisation relationships and break down barriers.

Extract from Collaborating for Results: Silo Working and Relationships that Work (also available on Amazon)

David Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.

A Question of Balance – Ego and Silo Working

During my book research a number of people referred to ‘ego’ being one cause of silo working. We can assume a lot from the label so I was curious to understand what this really meant.

The term ‘ego’ was first introduced by Sigmund Freud. The function of the ego in his model of the psyche is to mediate between the competing demands of the id (instinctual drivers), the super-ego (critical and moralising function) and external reality. The ego strives to maintain a healthy equilibrium, helping us to adapt to external reality and to influence and shape the external world we are part of.

His ideas have been developed and critiqued by many psychologists since. Eric Berne’s model of the internal ‘parent’, ‘adult’ and ‘child’ gave this ego function to the adult (The Games People Play, 1964). The healthy functioning adult integrates the best of the parent and child experiences and messages in dealing with external reality.

The founders of Gestalt psychotherapy, Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (Gestalt Therapy, 1951), believed in a more unified sense of ‘self’ in the environment rather than separate and seemingly isolated mental functions. They viewed the ego as a discriminating stage in the process of contact between an individual and their environment. In this process the ego decides what to pay attention to and what impulses or attractions to ignore in the present context — both inside and outside of the body. The term ‘ego’ therefore describes part of the process we go through to determine our interests, goals and actions in the present moment.

So how we experience a person’s ego can be described as an expression of what their current interest or motivation is, the actions and behaviours that flow from this and the adaptations they make. Why then should ‘ego’ be a problem in relationships that leads to silo working? When we talk about someone’s ego causing problems, we appear to be talking about a disturbance in the ego function. We are talking about ‘self-interested’ behaviour  – ego and self-interest being used synonymously. The ‘balancing function’ is somehow perceived to be not working, so the person does not adapt. In plain speaking, they want to influence but not be influenced. The person is actively pursuing their own needs and is perceived to be doing this without regard for others or the wider needs of the organisation.

In addition, if we accept that our experience of another’s ego is as described by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, then we cannot separate ego from all of the other aspects of personality — a more unified notion of ‘self’. Where ‘ego’ is seen to be a problem in relationships, it may be that the person has more extreme character traits and value positions. For example, the extrovert who is dominating, self-assured and forthright in a social context may be described as being ‘egotistical’ — particularly by the introverted, shy and tender-minded individual.

When I think back to a leader who was described as being ego-driven, I see someone who was energetic, colourful in character and determined but often self-centred and unpredictable in their actions. They did what they wanted to do and felt was right and others in the organisation had difficulty working out how it all ‘fitted in’.

So the problems of ‘ego’ can be viewed as problems of self-interest, possibly compounded by aspects of personality and interpersonal capability that create a perceived imbalance in relationships. Jim Collins (Good to Great, 2001) proposed that the best leaders, which he called ‘level 5 leaders’, transcend a focus on self-interested action to show humility. Humility requires empathy, listening and a letting go of control.

Extract from Collaborating for Results: Silo Working and Relationships that Work (also available on Amazon)

David Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.

Social Media and Cultures of Openness and Collaboration

This is an interesting research report by the CIPD on the use of social media in organisations and the implications for cultures of openness and collaboration. It highlights the barriers to increasing openness which I cover in some depth in my new book which will be published in July.

David Ian Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.

Collaborating for Results: The Importance of Values

Last year I wrote about what hinders good quality relationships between people and teams in organisations and how to improve them.  This included the role that learning and development practitioners and leaders play in developing effective working relationships. This month I focus on the impact that some fundamental values have on collaboration for results. The latest feature article based on the forthcoming book, Collaborating for Results: Silo Working and Relationships that Work, is now published on The Training Journal website.  This includes links to the previous articles.

David Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.


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