Making Human Contact—and Other Approaches to Busting Silos

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


We live in a world of social networks, permanent reachability, and easy travel. The dream used to be that these would break down organizational silos.  Yet, establishing trustful, productive relationships across boundaries is still difficult—maybe even more so than in the past.

Indeed, new tools and technologies do not automatically eliminate boundaries. For example, over reliance on email often creates boundaries between departments and is an ideal breeding ground for misunderstandings. The result: silos are well and alive.  So, what can we do?

Start with structure

Sergio, the CEO of a global financial organization, stresses the importance of “horizontal governance.”  Historically his organization has operated very bureaucratically and fragmented across many constituencies that differ in language, culture, national particularities, and so forth. This created a very slow and “siloed” organization.

According to Sergio, “Nature is divisive; people just see their own little piece. To correct this we needed to enable people to see our goals and processes holistically. That is why we implemented horizontal governance. It allows us to understand business urgency across horizontal boundaries.”

He continues, “Regular meetings are very helpful. We have special forums every month for middle managers to collaboratively identify any silo-related problems, conduct planning and performance review exercises, discuss cross-functional issues and come up with solutions, and then communicate back to their superiors and constituencies.”

Elizabeth Greene, former director of organizational learning at Make-A-Wish® International explains how that organization used a similar approach: “We launched CEO-level regional roundtables in April 2012 to break down silos and facilitate quick learning across the globe.  All CEOs are invited. Each roundtable is focused on a different topic, based on the simple action of reaching out to them ahead of time with a short survey.

“This produces a list of topic ideas, of which the group is then asked to identify the five most important. After the in-person discussion has been completed, one-hour webinars are scheduled and held to continue the conversation and address any topics that may not have been addressed.”

Focus on common customers

Beyond structured processes and meetings, customers are a critical driver in breaking down silos. For example, a key customer that everyone has in common is our boss’ boss.  Amanda Parsons, deputy commissioner at the New York City Department of Health gives this practical advice: “Every month my executive team meets as a team with my boss, Health Commissioner Thomas A. Farley. It breaks down silos across my team if they have to all meet with my boss and address his questions and needs.”


John Baker, former COO and SVP of the Retirement Services division at American Express (a $200MM global operating unit with 1,500 employees), took this idea to the next level. “We broke down silos by linking everyone’s goals to customer goals. For example, technology people typically reports on their technology agenda, and HR has HR goals to meet. Yet, everyone was focused in some way on making the customer profitable and successful. This united focus made sure that if a technology person and HR person needed to collaborate, it wouldn’t be battle about whose priorities to focus on—they would both be focusing on customer priorities.”

Birds of a feather must NOT flock together

Sometimes we just end up spending time with similar people. Werner Eikenbusch, manager of apprenticeship and associate Training at BMW’s U.S. factory had to address this to break down silos.  He explains, “In the U.S., the impetus for better results was ultimately given by the president of BMW’s U.S.-based manufacturing plant, Josef Kerscher. He tasked the vice presidents of quality, engineering, and production with coming together to figure out what they could do to accelerate  the pace of improvement.  What they realized was that engineering sat together, logistics sat together, and so forth. Functions even ate together.”

So, what did BMW do? According to Eikenbusch, a change in office assignments helped. “Each function had a representative move near the production line. Let’s assume I have eight planners and each planner supports one portion of the production line. Instead of the eight planners sitting together, each planner now sits with a production person. So now you had a cross-functional team sitting together. They started to have common meetings in which they would discuss issues. They would talk about their targets across departmental boundaries. It’s really all about teamwork, decentralizing, and working together,” he says.

However, BMW had to take it further to performance evaluation. Eikenbusch describes, “We are a very target-oriented company. When we introduced this cross-functional approach, it became clear (particularly when conducting focus groups) that everybody was thinking, ‘Yes, that all sounds great, but at the end of the day, who’s going to evaluate my performance? If supporting this production team is not on my target sheet or my supervisor doesn’t care about it, then ultimately, I can’t really be held accountable because I’ll be evaluated against different standards.’

“We realized this was going to be a big obstacle to cross-functional collaboration. So we said, okay, we need to work on getting agreement on some basic targets for which everybody will be jointly responsible. After we had agreed on those baseline targets, managers from all the different groups signed off on them and agreed to be held accountable to support the targets.”

It is a problem of human contact

There is no harder place to break down silos than across culture in the context of war.  Erick Hoversholm, planner and operations officer for the U.S. Army, shares a story about when he was recently stationed in Afghanistan. It is a perfect example of how it takes human contact to break down silos.

Hoversholm explained that there was a group of five Afghani locals who lived right outside the gate of the Army compound. They would greet the Americans in the Afghani way: They’d bow or put their hand across their chests to say hello. At first Erick didn’t know how to respond, but soon he started to mimic their gestures. This was met with appreciation.

According to Hoversholm, “I would try to use words and gestures and they would laugh. They enjoyed watching us stumble through. Then they were more willing to work with me. When I left for R&R, this one guy was really upset and it seemed to be that he was going to miss me. Before I left he came up to me and said ‘Thank you very much’ and shook my hand. This was a completely foreign ritual for him. Based on my trying to reach out to him, he was now trying to learn my customs and reach out to me. This one moment deepened my level of respect for and appreciation of these people with whom I interacted every day.”

Busting silos is not a mystery 

Partially, busting down silos is the result of the ideas in our previous articles on building business acumen and creating a innovative culture.  When you add in creating structures, meetings, and measures that support common goals, collaboration will become as natural as shaking your colleague’s hand.

About the Author
Mr. Polsky spent 20 years in OD & Learning, teaching more than 10,000 professionals worldwide before co-founding Teams of Distinction. With a Masters in Organization Development and a lifelong education in human behavior (beginning at the age of 9 at the kitchen table) Mr. Polsky has been a life-long student of human behavior in and out of the workplace and prides himself on bringing his kitchen table wisdom to boardroom roundtables.
About the Author
Before co-founding Teams of Distinction, Mr. Gerschel was the COO of a $17 million multi-media learning company in Europe and the Director of global leadership development and e-learning for Sanofi-Aventis Pharmacuetical. Mr. Gerschel speaks globally on a regular basis and is fluent in five languages. Fusing his diverse corporate career and international knowledge, Mr. Gerschel offers clients a unique expert’s take on raising the bar on their productivity. Since 2008 he has educated and inspired more than 30,000 leaders on five continents through his speeches, coaching, training, and books;
Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.