How to Eliminate Silo Thinking

By George Pitagorsky | Follow on Twitter!

Have you ever wished that boundaries like departments, company affiliation, even states and countries would melt away and you could just work together to get things done?

Chances are that it will not happen, at least not right away, and probably for good reason - boundaries add value. At the same time, they can get in the way of achieving objectives.

We want the added value and to eliminate any unnecessary barriers to success. To do that, we have to eliminate silo thinking and replace it with a realistic understanding of stakeholder relationships and their wants, needs and positions.

With a realistic understanding, it is far more likely that people from various organizations will be able to optimize their performance. They will realize that they co-own the processes and projects they are part of and have less sense of identification with their departments.

Silo Thinking

Silo thinking locks people into narrow spaces with strong walls. It is characterized by departments or groups that won't share information, competitiveness, jealousy or fear.

Perhaps my most blatant experience of it was way back in the 1980's at a global financial organization. The corporate IT department, a newly formed project management/business analysis (BA) group were engaged by a newly formed product management group to implement a large complex system that involved significant cultural change and the use of relatively new technology.

The business groups involved were four major geographical divisions, some with their own IT groups.

These newly formed groups were resisted by the IT department. Its executive management believed that IT should be responsible for business and systems analysis, product and project management. At first, they would not allow their programmers and team leads to attend meetings called by the PMs and BAs. They resisted project planning and control processes.

It wasn't until the product management group, empowered by corporate management at the highest level, put its foot down that the central IT leadership stopped playing politics and allowed its people to get down to business.

A free flow of information, transparency and cooperation are critical to organizational business process and project performance. In effect, the project should flow as if everyone was on the same team.

Silo thinking is often deeply embedded in organizational cultures. In some situations it is standard operating procedure, completely accepted as the only way things can be. Everyone adapts to it by adding time and effort to manage the layers of politics and administrative process required when there is no sense of a unifying purpose.

In other situations silo thinking may be recognized as a dysfunction, but one that is too sensitive to address and too difficult to change. Some key players may be extremely territorial and wield power. Others may not have the process consciousness to understand the problem and recognize that something can be done about it.

Sometimes the people at the grassroots - project leaders, managers and performers ignore the dysfunction above them and get down to working together to achieve their mutual objectives.


Silo thinking and behavior is fueled by:

  1. 1) Habitual sub-optimization - making local performance more efficient, at the expense of overall performance
  2. 2) Fear of accountability and outside criticism
  3. 3) Department level funding rather than process and project related funding

Remove the fuel and silo thinking will disappear. Even the most territorial and competitive manager can withstand transparency and clear understandings about objectives, roles and responsibilities.

Avoid Sub-optimization

Sub-optimization can only continue if there is a lack of awareness and accountability.

At the start of the project, promote local efficiency without compromising overall effectiveness. Sometimes the project will predominate and departments will have to adapt. Other times, the departments or functional groups will predominate.

No department or functional area stands alone. Each is a contributor in an effort to meet collaborative objectives.

To avoid sub-optimization you need:

  • Adequate sponsorship willing to cut through silo based behavior
  • Project charters
  • Project plans that identifies all activities, no matter who is responsible for their performance
  • Clearly defined roles, responsibilities and accountabilities
  • A communications and control process that insists upon objective clarity about commitments, expectations and whether they have been met

Avoid Hiding from Criticism

Avoiding the second major factor in silo thinking means breaking through a common aversion to criticism. This implies changing the organization's attitude about performance analysis and accountability. It requires active sponsorship, an objective control process and mindful awareness of habitual tendencies to punish errors rather than to learn from them.

Funding Projects and Processes

Budgets that center on departments create divisions that get in the way of process and project performance. Removing this fuel may mean a systemic change in financing the organization.

Business processes and projects are the things that make a difference in organizations. When department budgets are derived from the departments' contributions to projects and processes there is a clear message that department staff is being paid for by the projects and business processes they support.


When the environment promotes collaborative efforts and removes the fuel for silo thinking, silo thinking is eliminated. With its elimination comes greater synergy, higher probability of success and a more pleasant working environment.

Questions or comments? Feel free to share them below!

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Online 7/5/2016
George Pitagorsky
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