Do you feel you’re working together with only a few people in your team, rather than being part of an organization that pursues a common vision? If so, your company might have a silo problem.

What are silos?

To explain what silos are, we need to go back in history a little. Since industrialization took off, specialization has been a popular concept for making companies more efficient and profitable. Specialization meant breaking down processes into smaller sections and training employees to become highly skilled at performing tasks that are very specific and limited in scope. The output for such a task per worker would increase and production costs would go down.

The result of this are silos: people, teams, and departments within organizations that neither share information nor interact with each other. Each and every one is focusing on their own work and tries to do that very well. Silos are a consequence of a process of departmentalization that has gone too far. Silos are both physical (departments and teams sitting apart from each other) as well as psychological (they exist in our minds, too). They can have a devastating effect on a company’s creativity and flexibility.

If your organization is suffering from these silos, it’s about time to bust them. And OKRs can help you achieve just that.

What’s the problem with them?

Silos discourage—or even prevent—people from working together. That applies to every type of organization, from public administration to privately held enterprises. Even though one would intuitively agree that you should cooperate and share information within an organization, the inconvenient truth is that this still is a challenge today.

Anthropologists say that people tend to live and socialize within silos, as they choose to stay within particular groups that are typically made up of people who are similar to us. Combine that with a business world that is increasingly becoming more complex and thus encourages specialization, just as the industrialization did.

Silos based on functional areas do have their benefits: they help us structure and organize our organizations and workplaces and improve accountability. According to Gillian Tett, this increased accountability is part of the problem: the accountability is limited to someone’s functionality or particular part of a process and loses the bigger picture. People and teams can become competitive and restrictive about their data, wasting resources and miscalculating risks.

Imagine for instance a Marketing and a Sales team operating in complete silos: Marketing would be focused on bringing as many leads as possible, without worrying whether those leads would actually convert into customers. In order for Marketing to bring in the right leads, Sales will have to share their data with them. Now this is a silo that most organizations with a mature Sales team have been able to tackle, yet many silos remain hidden.

Silos, innovation & the enterprise

Innovation seems to become an increasingly important factor for the future growth of large, established enterprises. Yet, to come up with new ideas, you need space and the ability to freely interact and exchange ideas with people from different disciplines. Something that is not happening when silos exist. A company that felt victim to this is Sony.

Being a small and dynamic firm in the early 1950s, Sony turned into a corporate giant over the course of 30 years. In the early 90s, the new leadership decided to manage the company by subdividing its divisions into self-sufficient specialist units, better known as silos. Sony lost their innovative edge and soon it was a shadow of its former self.

Busting silos

As mentioned before, silos exist both on a physical level (i.e. inside your company), as on a psychological level (i.e. in your mind). Busting silos will, therefore, have to happen on an organizational level as well as on a personal level.

Busting silos on a personal level:

If you’re a successful account executive, you will probably see this reflected in your social and cultural silo too. Interacting with, and sharing ideas and expertise with other functional and expertise areas will help you break down your personal silo. Go out there and try to meet people who are different than you, whether that is on a social or professional level. Read a book that you normally wouldn’t read and visit an event that you would otherwise not attend. You’ll be surprised by the new insights and ideas that you will get from that.

Busting silos within your organization:

Facebook is well-known for consciously taking efforts to keep the walls of their silos permeable. They organize special gatherings and competitions, and every new Facebook employee will have to go through the same 6-week “boot camp”, regardless of their rank or position. This ensures they all have to digest the same information and collaborate, and it ensures they get to know each other really well (simultaneously breaking down personal and organizational silos).

Breaking down the barriers with OKR

OKR—Objectives & Key Results, a popular goal management methodology—is another great tool to break down organizational as well as personal silos. First of all, OKR fosters transparency. It allows leadership to better communicate the organization’s vision and helps to unify the entire organization behind it, by letting every team, department and individual to share their goals (objectives) and progress, and how that contributes to the company’s objectives at any point in time. It shows everyone the bigger picture and it lets them see how they fit into it.

As employees can now see not only what their team and team members are working on, but also what other teams are doing and what they contribute to a specific objective, it stimulates communication and makes everyone more aware of all the work being done in the organization, reducing double and wasted efforts. Team members will have new opportunities to talk to people from different disciplines, and plenty of new topics to talk about. You will find that this unleashes not only renewed energy but also an ocean of new ideas and creativity.