(by Lencioni, Patrick M. (J-B Lencioni Series))

Introduction to Silos

Silos are nothing more than the barries that exist between departments within an organization, causing people who are supposed to be on the same team to work against one another. And whether we call this phenomenon departmental politics, divisional rivalry, or turf warfare, it is one of the most frustrating aspects of life in any sizable organization.

In most situations, silos rise up not because of what executives are doing purposefully but rather because of what they are failing to do: provide themselves and their employees with a compelling context for working together. Without this context, employees at all levels--especially executives--easily get lost, moving in different directions, often at cross-purpsoes.

Even the most well-meaning, intelligent people get distracted and confused amid the endless list of tactical and administrative details that come their way every day. Pulled in many directions without a compass, they pursue seemingly worthwhile agendas under the assumption that their efforts will be in the best interest of the organization as a whole.

But as employees notice their colleagues in other divisions repeatedly moving in different directions, they begin to wonder why they aren’t on board. Over time, their confusion turns into disappointment, which eventually becomes resentment—even hostility—toward their supposed teammates. And then the worst thing possible happens—they actually start working against those colleagues on purpose!

This maddening problem exists, to different degrees, in most companies I’ve encountered. And in too many of those companies leaders who are frustrated by the silo mentality mistakenly attribute it to the immaturity and insecurity of employees who somehow just refuse to get along with one another.

But the fact is, most employees have a profound and genuine interest in working well across divisions. That’s because they, more than anyone else, feel the daily pain of departmental politics as they are left to fight bloody, unwinnable battles with their colleagues. If there is a place where the blame for silos and politics belongs, it is at the top of an organization. Every departmental silo in any company can ultimately be traced back to the leaders of those departments, who have failed to understand the interdependencies that must exist among the executive team, or who have failed to make those interdependencies clear to the people deeper in their own departments.

Thankfully, there is a simple and powerful way for those leaders to create a common sense of purpose, and a context for interdependency: they must establish, for the executive team as well as the rest of the organization, a rallying cry. A thematic goal.

Components of the Model

The model for combating silos consists of four components

A thematic goal

A single, qualitative focus that is shared by the entire leadership team--and ultimately by the entire organization-and that applies for only a specified time period.

What it is not:

Key elements of a thematic goal:

A set of defining objectives

The components or building blocks that serve to clarify exactly what is meant by the thematic goal. Once a thematic goal has been set, a leadership team must then give it actionable context so that members of the team know what must be done to accomplish the goal.

Required elements of a defining objective:

A set of ongoing standard operating directives

It is critical to acknowledge the existence of other key objectives that a leadership team must focus on and monitor. These are ongoing objectives that don't go away from period to period. They vary from one company to the next depending on the industry.

Standard operating objectives often include topics like revenue, expenses, customer satisfaction, productivity, market share, quality, etc.

The danger for the company lies in mistaking one of these critical objectives, like revenue or expenses, for a rallying cry. Most employees find it difficult to rally around "making the numbers" or "managing expenses," knowing these will continue to be trumpeted as critical over and over again. That's not to say that a thematic goal cannot involve one of these categories, but leaders must resist the temptation to say, "Revenue is all that matters, because if we don't make our numbers, everything else is immaterial." While that may be true in a literal sense, it doesn't qualify as a thematic goal if it isn't unique to a given period. Instead, call it what it is: a critical but standard operating objective. When leaders use these standard operating objectives as rallying cries, they create a "boy who cried wolf" syndrome, provoking cynicism and lethargy who say, "Here we go again".


Once the thematic goal, defining objecties, and standard operating objectives have been established, a leadership team can now start talking about measurement. But remember, without these other areas, metrics have little or no context. Even the most driven employees will not be as motivated for hitting the numbers if they don't understand how they fit into the bigger picture.

Keep in mind that even metrics are not always quantifiable numbers. Often they are dates by which a given activity will be completed.

Trying to artificially assign specific numbers to unmeasurable activities--which is a common mistake among many executive teams--is unwise because it encourages the achievement of arbitrary outcomes that may or may not contribute to the thematic goal.

Identifying a thematic goal

Key to finding the right one is to let a team discuss it for a while, without feeling the need to arrive at a quick decision; often, a team's initial guess at a thematic goal will actually be one of the defining objectives that create the context for the goal. Be patient and constantly ask, "Is this really the thematic goal, or is it merely one of the many defining objectives?" If you're still having a hard time identifying the thematic goal, you might be overthinking it. Soeone who isn't so mired in overanalysis might be the person to give you some perspective.

Managing and organizing around the thematic goal

Once a leadership team determines its thematic goal, defining objectives, and standard operating objectives, it needs to keep that information alive in the course of running the organization. Then place where it needs to be reviewed and discussed is during regular (usually weekly) staff meetings: Go around the table and give every member of the team thirty secods to report on their three top priorities for the coming week--even a team of twelve can do this in six minutes. Then review your team scorecard: a to-be-graded list of the items that make up the defining objectives and the standard operating objectives. The colors assigned to each area are a simple, qualitative assessment based on the judgment of the leadership team members. As heretical as it may seem to allow executives to grade themselves without using hard numbers, the point of the exercise is to tap into the judgment and intuition of the people running the company as to which areas are doing well and which aren't.

The job of the leader is to quickly break ties by saying "OK, let's call it orange" when people can't decide if something is yellow or red. The purpose of the discussion is not precision but general assessment of performance.

Once the ratings have been done (usually taking five minutes) the team is ready to decide where to spend the time and energy available during the remainder of the meeting. This would be the time for someone to challenge a teammate who is planning to spend a good chunk of time that week on an issue that is either disconnected from the thematic goal or related to an area that is already doing well; the thematic goal provides the context for peer accountability about how team members are prioritizing their precious time and resources, which are the key to an organization's ability to focus. Everyone needs to feel responsible for asking about any situations, for getting clarity around what needs to happen to address it, and for assisting with the effort. Some might be able to contribute directly to the project, while others might simply offer up resources from their departments to help jump-start the project. Whatever the case, they key is that they recognize that none of them can succeed if they don't get this done.

If nothing else gets discussed during the meeting, the areas of focus must be. Needless time should not be wasted on discussions about other non-focal areas. As obvious as this may seem, it is an extremely common problem among many teams. All too often, executives spread their time evenly across all departments and issues, giving equal attention to every topic regardless of where it falls in terms of importance or progress. Meetings become show-and-tell sessions designed to give everyone time to talk about their departments and activities. This only reinforces silos and makes it more likely that critical issues get too little attention from the entire team. Without the clarify of a secorecard that includes defining objectives and standard operating objectives, it is extremely difficult for them to avoid this, and without the existence of a thematic goal, it would all be impossible.

Thematic goals and long-term context

Shouldn’t thematic goals be part of a longer-term strategic direction? The answer is yes, but with caveats. Too often, leaders either have no plan, or they have too much of a plan (a la Prussian-style too-specific details). A thematic goal provides that context because it exists within the framework of six to twelve months, a time horizon that most businesses can accurately manage.

BHAGs don’t provide enough guidance about what people should actually focus on once they get to work. Consider that executives can be in solid agreement around a BHAG and still find themselves constantly working at cross-purposes. Take, for example, a community hospital whose BHAG is to be the best little community hospital in the world. Even if every leader of that hospital is completely committed to that BHAG, there is a great likelihood that silos will rise up within that hospital as executives with different responsibilities and interpretations of how that BHAG should be achieved lead their departments in different directions.

It’s the thematic goal that ties it all together. Without it, the BHAGs lose connection to day-to-day activities, and weekly metrics become arbitrary and lifeless numbers that seem to serve no purpose other than their own. A final thought about this. When a thematic goal is clearly established and communicated, employees should be able to look up from their work at any given time and see how they’re contributing to an outcome that is far enough away to give them the ability to succeed, but not so far away that they cannot imagine ever being finished. They should be able to see how the company’s long-term vision connects to its short-term objectives.

Making matrix organizations work

It turns out that a thematic goal is exactly what is needed to transform a matrix reporting structure from a tool of confusion to one of collaboration. The real problem with matrices is that they ask employees to please two different leaders who are not aligned with one another. By achieving clarity about the number one priority in an organization, organization, and by clearly identifying the defining and standard operating objectives that contribute to it, companies will give their employees far less reason to fear being pulled apart at the seams. And if an employee does start to feel some pull, it is a great opportunity for the leaders in charge to identify a crack in their alignment. Like a canary in a coal mine, a confused or conflicted employee can be a sign that the thematic goal and defining objectives aren’t being communicated effectively, or more important, aren’t being used to manage the organization from above.

Getting Started

The first step a leadership team needs to take toward establishing a thematic goal and identifying its related components is to carve out enough time to discuss the organization’s priorities. In some cases, a team will have to go back and clarify its overall purpose and strategy ahead of time in order to provide the context for identifying the thematic goal. So, as much as a full day might be advisable.

Consider the time and energy that will be saved by providing your team with a unifying sense of purpose, by giving them an understanding of how everyone contributes to that purpose, and by making it easy to get employees throughout the organization rowing in the same direction.

Heck, that just might be worth two days. Good luck.

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Last modified 31 December 2020