Dealing With Silos on Your Project

“This piece of sh!t. I buy connected silos that don’t connect. How the f$%@ can I operate if I don’t know what’s going on? Why don’t they f$%@ing connect?”

My friend is a farmer. He originally took over his family’s small 40 acre hobby farm in the early 2000’s. With a degree in business, he decided an office wasn’t for him and applied his business skills to growing the farm. Over the years, he’s acquired more land, equipment, and now manages daily operations while letting “those younger backs” do more of the manual work. He’s also got a pretty short fuse when it comes to technology not working!

In early 2022, he needed more space to store his harvest. A company was hired to build four large, connected siloes. I was intrigued by all the information that was supposed to flow onto a dashboard. There was a view on how all four silo systems were running, then you can look at the details of each. If something didn’t look right, a couple button clicks and the wrong was righted.

But, today nothing was working right. Data was not feeding onto his dashboard and nothing he did could get results to display. The silos were not talking to each other or with him through his iPad. This had been an ongoing issue since June when the silos were built. Now in January, he was livid. After a few more minutes of unhappiness and a frank message left on his service rep’s voicemail, we went back into the house for a drink.

Though I got a chuckle from my friend’s reaction to his silo issues, it’s really no laughing matter. For him, it can mean a ruined product if the information is not available and there are problems. That equates to lost revenue. In Project Management, more often than not, our teams are cross-functional across multiple business units. Silos within teams can result in failed projects, sunk cost, unrealized strategies, and lots of blame. Silos, both on the project and corporate level, are a real problem, one that’s been around a long time.

First, what is a silo in business? Think of it as information hoarding. When one business unit, or team from a business unit, withholds information from others, this creates a silo. This withholding of information can lead to issues on our projects, from incomplete requirements to inaccurate workflows, and other points in between. I’ve also seen these situations lead to interpersonal conflict, which impacts morale.

So, where do silos come from? Well, find the most senior leader in the room and point at them. Silos, and the tearing down of them, come from the top. More often than not, conflict within the senior leadership ranks results in interdepartmental turf wars. When mom and dad fight, the kids lose! There can be other reasons, but I say leadership is responsible for creating a dynamic culture (I’ll save that rant for another time).

OK, we’ve established siloes are bad. You, as a project leader, are not going to change the entire culture of a company and knock them down. You can, however, create a dynamic and cross-functional project team where the threat of siloes exist, but are mitigated. Here are some tips for tearing down siloes on your project.

Setting the Shared, Big Picture Goal. Businesses have top-level goals. These goals then make their way down to individual divisions and/or departments. From there, projects are spun up which people are assigned to. The problem I’ve often seen is the team is told about the project, but not its connection to the big picture.

To create a force united, make sure you understand the project’s connection to company strategy and goals. Talk about it at the kick-off. Better yet, I’ve invited the sponsor and/or an executive to the kick-off to also talk about the project’s connection to the bigger picture. Their input seems to stick pretty well. After the kick-off, keep reinforcing that big picture connection. Engagement will increase and silos decrease if the team knows what they’re working towards.

Team Building Should be a Project Task. Teams struggle to work together effectively because they don’t know each other. I’ve had a Gen X’r not like a Millennial because the Millennial dyed her hair purple. Later they found out they both liked cross stitch and had more in common than different. Would you openly share information with someone if you didn’t have a good relationship?

Finding time to do team building activities is hard. So, I recommend scheduling them in whenever possible. Make it a recurring task if needed. Start at the kick-off by allowing for interpersonal time. Whether in person or virtual, there are all types of ice-breaking and getting to know you options (just Google it!). If you’re not physically together, encourage cameras to come on occasionally to see people’s faces. It helps in making a connection, and also helps with sharing of information.

Encourage and Demonstrate Open Communication. How often do you, as the project leader, have information that may be of interest to the team and you don’t say anything? Maybe you forgot to tell them or thought it was insignificant, only to find out that it was important to someone.

I have a couple solutions for this. First, be a real-time communicator. If you find something out, share it ASAP. Messaging apps to the whole team is best or email if that’s not available. Get it out to everyone! The other is recurring team meetings. Whether daily standups or weekly updates, have time for sharing what you’ve learned or heard. Over communicate! If the team sees you doing it and being transparent, they’re more likely to also.

Utilize Collaborative Tools. “Back in my day we had interoffice mail, none of this email stuff!” Before the advent of collaborative tools, it was easy for silos to form because it was a bigger challenge to connect. Now, however, those excuses don’t exist.

Though it’s still great to get together in person, it’s not always necessary. Instant messaging, video, and a whole host of other tools makes it easier to collaborate. If you don’t know what’s available at your company, ask. Better yet, if you see a gap, make a recommendation. That’s how one client ended up with Lucidchart and they love it! It’s part of most meetings and has become a great collaboration tool.

Set Clear Responsibilities and Accountabilities. Ever see one of those nametags that says “Hi, My Name Is _____ and I Do _____”. You right away know the person’s name and what they do. Connection made!

Same is true for our projects. Setting clear role expectations ensures everyone knows not only what their role is, but the rest of the team’s also. Knowing what everyone does can help remove silos because you’ll actually know who to talk to. It’s fundamental, but one that can easily be overlooked. It’s easy to keep information if you don’t know who to share it with.

Silos, or hoarding of information, is common in many companies. It’s a leadership issue that comes with costs. But, it doesn’t have to be that way with your projects. Make every attempt to remove silos and get team members working seamlessly together. It will definitely help move you toward success!

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