How to Break Down Silos So Your Team Can Succeed

Physical silos are great for storing grain. Corporate silos—when teams become isolated from one another, never sharing information or interacting—are a pervasive problem in tech, especially when it comes to projects that need as much transparency as possible to succeed.

However, silos are sometimes hard to spot, especially if you’re working virtually. From a management perspective, one way to break these silos down is to encourage cross-collaboration among teams and departments to ensure everyone is on the same page. That means being proactive about ensuring teams hear and address all ideas and concerns.

For FlowPlay CEO Derrick Morton, spotting and breaking down silos all stems from figuring out what makes people excited about their job—namely being able to make decisions about the work they do and having ownership over that work.

Morton operates FlowPlay via a flat management style, and despite the ultra-competitive landscape, the Seattle-based developer has seen an astounding zero percent turnover rate since 2018. Current employees have worked for the company for an average 6.8 years. Through its blend of a cross-silo decision-making process and internal “Brainathons,” FlowPlay employees are encouraged to be involved in critical business decisions such as product development. 

“We decided from the start to have no management layer where there is normally a tier of people whose sole purpose is to organize people below them,” he said. “In gaming, it’s the people doing the coding and graphics on the day-to-day who know the product the best, and a manager may not be so familiar with the challenges they face. We thought we could avoid that by forming teams of people so artist and engineers could make decisions about their work and the product they were working on.”

He views silos as detrimental because it encourages one group to view other groups within the organization as “those other people,” which can grow into tribalism and a sense that employees are competing against each other. “That’s where a lot of inefficiencies get created,” he said. “You feel separated from the other group, and as long as that separation exists, you will work in competition with each other.” 

Actively Boosting Collaboration is Key

Khadim Batti, CEO and co-founder of software developer Whatfix, agrees with Morton: organizational silos can quickly become the barrier to growth and innovation. “In a hybrid work environment where we’re not seeing our colleagues in person every day, breaking down these silos is even more important,” he said.

Batti pointed out that Whatfix is a globally distributed team with 500 employees across six global offices. “In my role as CEO, I’ve seen a few things work well to help facilitate cross-collaboration among teams,” he said. “For example, we increased overlap hours among our overseas teams to facilitate better communication, while simultaneously implementing a policy of no morning meetings (for India) or late evening meetings (for U.S. staff) to ensure that our people are not burning the candle at both ends.”

Furthermore, Batti believes it’s up to business leaders to set the culture and tone that encourages collaboration. “When you want collaboration across different time zones, it’s especially critical to promote policies that support work-life balance so that employees don’t find collaborating with other teams to be a burden,” he said.

This can include providing flexibility in working hours so that your people can balance work with personal commitments. Managers and team leads should also be mindful about not expecting responses from employees during their off hours. “I’m also a firm believer that a successful business needs to balance fun and work,” Batti said. “Successful cross-collaboration among teams starts with employees getting to know each other as people first, then colleagues.”

Whatfix has hosted multiple programs where employees get to know each other better, such as biweekly “Fun Friyays,” “Masterchef with leaders,” and annual team off-sites. From Batti’s perspective, relationship-building is the first step to successful collaboration. He also thinks that, at a baseline, organizations need to provide the technical tools that employees need to be able to do their work remotely and communicate effectively with colleagues all around the world. This can include video conferencing tools, messaging apps, and shared working platforms.

“Make sure to provide the resources and then empower key leaders within the organization to drive adoption,” he said. 

Tearing Down the Silos

Morton said the first indication that silos are built up in your organization can come when you hear a compliant from one group to another in the third person. “You need to nip this stuff in the bud right away,” Morton said. “They are part of your team—we are all working together here. How do we resolve an issue that is directly affecting our team and quit thinking about them as if they were a separate entity?” 

His advice is to do whatever possible to mix the teams, mix the silos, and make them engage so they learn about each other as people—not just as professionals. To aid this effort, Morton organizes a company-wide meeting once a month where new employees are introduced: They fill out a survey with personal details, and they have to give Morton half a dozen photos of themselves.

“I present them to the company, I ask them where they went to school, and things about their life. That icebreaker also helps a lot,” he said. “At this point, everyone has been presented to the company in this way, so everybody knows that person and their story. And now, they’re a realized full person, not just that person who works next door.”