Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth Hughes

Silos – the hidden cost of not working together

Silos – when my team is best - Featured Image LG April 2018

Silos are evidenced when teams are inwardly focused. By Elizabeth Hughes.

The other day a client said to me, “Our team has done our bit but because the organisation is so siloed, I think you’ll find the project is a bit of a mess.” While the irony of this was lost on the person who said it, it did lead me to consider the disruptive and serious problems arising from silos in the workplace.
Working in specialist areas or teams is critically important in councils. That’s especially true when highly-skilled practitioners must deliver across technical or complex disciplines, supporting elected members to make the very best decisions they can. And loyalty in close-knit teams is a significant contributor to a positive workplace environment.
Neither of these things describes a silo.
Silos are evidenced when teams are inwardly focused. They measure their own participation and successes, rather than realising success comes from the organisation achieving its goals. They do not actively collaborate. They hunker down and look at ‘other teams’ as the competition.
Here are some behaviours observed in organisations with silos:

  • Repetition and duplication of work and / or systems: Separate departmental customer databases are a very common example of this.
  • A blame culture: This is most often evidenced when there was an initial lack of clarity about ownership of the outcome or project. Note: it will never be my team – it is always another team’s fault.
  • Unclear outcomes: For example, teams are employed to facilitate the completion of a widget. Teams (a) and (b) working on a new watsit, teams (c) and (d) are working on an earlier version of the watsit and team (e) is working on a W.I.D.G.E.T.
  • Money down the drain: Money and resources are wasted. This could stem from something as simple as uncoordinated advertising expenditure, or from complex scenarios such as different departments running unrelated community engagement programmes.
  • Crisis after crisis after crisis: See my earlier comments on blame culture and add in the words ‘leadership deficit’.

Councils, and many other organisations, work hard to try and address such problems. Often, the solution is thought to be to fix processes, policies or procedures.
However, the issue lies in the organisational culture. And organisational culture, of course, starts at the top.
If you aren’t sure whether your organisation has silos that are contributing to the issues listed above, look at your staff engagement survey. This is one of the easiest ways to determine how entrenched a silo mentality may be.
The clue will be that the top scores include the rating “my team performs very well”. The lowest scores will be for statements such as “other teams in this organisation do not deliver as expected” or “this organisation manages poor performance well”. (Obviously, the staff who fill in the poor performance scores are talking about the other teams, not their own.)
In addition to the organisational focus, there is a unique aspect to local government that beds in silos even more firmly.
While there are plenty of excellent examples of councils that work together on common projects, there are also many more examples where these have failed or not even managed to get past first base.
If you look closely, it is often the ability of the professionals who are working together that is problematic, not the project itself.
Some of the biggest BS I hear comes from council leaders who say that working collaboratively, or joining forces to achieve better outcomes, is just not possible.
These highly-qualified public servants usually frame the lack of progress as, “we are doing our bit but [the others] are not prepared to play”.
These are council silos – a different, and much higher, level of organisational silo – at work.
And some would still tell you that it’s the elected members who are the problem…

This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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