The Innovation Blog

The Silos Effect (a.k.a. Collaboration's Kryptonite)

Posted by Creative Realities on February 1, 2011

 Over the last 22 years we have worked with hundreds of clients in over 35 different industries. This is important to establish because we know the following topic is a factor in any industry.

We kick off new client relationships with an assessment of their capacity for innovation, by asking a cross-section of functional and hierarchical stakeholders to, “Please describe how innovation happens around here.”  

One of the first words we always hear (it has never failed…ever) is “silos!”  As I mentioned in my podcast at Brand Fast-Trackers, one prospective client recently muttered “fortresses.”

Business silos are exactly the same as agricultural silos; they are meant to safely hold something and make it tough to get at what’s inside. Silos may be beneficial to protect wheat from rain & snow but they are the biggest structural barriers to innovation that companies have to contend with; and the bigger the company the worse the impact of their silos. Silos create an environment where every company's divisions, business units, brands, functions, autonomous regions and levels resist sharing andcollaborating for anything other than their own special interests.

Ironically, one of the most effective ways to address the negative impact of silos is embedded in a company’s innovation practices, usually the biggest, most constant stimulator of change. And the only ones who can inspire people to break down silos and collaborate with each other is their executive leadership. Innovation is the Trojan Horse for breaking down silos. But it only works if the leaders do what they’re supposed to do.

Remember this! Companies don’t change because they want to. They change because they are forced to by competition, by advances in science and technology, and by other market dynamics they can’t control (if we could control them then we wouldn’t have to change). When change is being forced upon the enterprise, and they can’t do things the way they’ve always done them, then they are willing to give and accept help.

But it doesn’t work unless everyone understands why change/innovation must happen and why they need to work together in new & different ways toward a common goal. And only the top of an organization can make that happen.

Here are the first two critical steps in breaking down silos. We have identified Innovation’s 9 Critical Success Factors. Two of the most critical are:

o  A Compelling Case for Innovation

o  A Fully Aligned Strategic Innovation Agenda

Let’s start with the Compelling Case for Innovation. Who said this and when? Please guess before reading on:

 “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success nor dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarm-ness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor, and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who does not truly believe in anything new until they have had experience of it.”

Notice how so much of what resists change is embedded in the culture, in protecting what is rather than getting excited about what could be. The quote was from Niccolo Machiavelli in 1513. And not much has changed in 500 years! Only by inspiring a culture with a compelling case for why the organization needs to change in order to insure the health and growth of the enterprise…and job security (what’s in it for me?) will anyone be willing to play with newness.

So what does a compelling case for innovation have to do with silos? It’s the first step in breaking them down. It wheels the Trojan Horse through the impenetrable walls of “how we do things around here.”

The second critical success factor is A Fully Aligned Strategic Innovation Agenda. Now that management has everyone’s attention, and has sounded the call to innovation, what must happen next? My partner Jay Terwilliger’s favorite quote when it comes to innovation strategy is from the Cheshire Cat to Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there.” Most senior managements fear that giving strategic guidance to their organizations will stifle their creativity and their willingness to “think outside the box.” In the immortal words of Colonel Sherman Potter, “Horse Hockey!”

An innovation agenda is the second step in breaking down silos, because the organization realizes that it must work together to succeed at something. That’s why President Kennedy’s challenge to NASA was so brilliant: “By the end of the decade we will put a man on the moon and safely return him to earth.” One of the most powerful ways to break down silos is to inspire the organization with an innovation agenda that demands it. The people in NASA had no choice; they had to collaborate every day in order to do something no one had ever done before. The silos came tumbling down.

By Mark H. Sebell, Founder and CEO, Creative Realities @MarkHSebell

Check out my recent podcast at Brand Fast Trackers 

Topics: information silos, departmental silos, Mark Sebell, Innovation, Collaboration, Cross Functional Teams, Management, Creating an Innovation agenda