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Associations Now

Break Out of the Silo Mentality

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, December 2009, Feature

By: Jeffrey Cufaude

Summary: Organizational silos don't just appear spontaneously. They're created by a mix of mindset, culture, and process factors that many associations share. The good news: If you can correct those factors, you can eliminate silos and keep them from coming back. (Titled "Bust Out of the Silo Mindset" in print edition.)

Cleaning out some files recently—the old-fashioned kind consisting of manila folders filled with paper—I found the same article in three different folders. I briefly reminisced about the old days when you filed things in multiple locations to avoid forgetting where they were. Of course, today's desktop search engines can find every computer file that includes the mere mention of a search term, regardless of the file's name, in less than 15 seconds.

Long-term change only occurs when we address the mental models and belief systems that get in the way of desired results.

Information no longer has to be filed in one single category, but we often treat it the same way we did in the days of manila folders and filing cabinets. Simple tools allow us to engage with people beyond their functional titles or geographical locations, yet much thinking and activity still occurs through traditional channels. Our environment and the opportunities it presents for innovation requires more integrated thinking and crossfunctional solutions, but many efforts still occur independently, isolated from others' insights and perspectives. We say that shared success and working for the greater good are meaningful and appealing to us, but individuals frequently act out of self-interest.

It's not difficult to find an association staffer lamenting this still-all-too-pervasive silo mindset. What is difficult is to find an organization that has comprehensively rethought how it does its work to foster a more collaborative, open-access culture that engenders interdependent efforts and solutions. Using a systems thinking framework will help advance such efforts.

What Is Systems Thinking?

Getting Systems Thinkers on the Bus

While associations aren't generally in a position to fully execute the "First Who, Then What" concept made famous in Good to Great, the book's emphasis on "getting the right people on the bus" has resonated deeply with many. The hiring process can notify candidates that a systems thinking approach is expected in your organization. It can also identify individuals who might possess a strong silos mindset. A few practical considerations:

The job announcement. Describe the interdependent nature of the organizational culture and make it clear that staff members are expected to take interest in (and contribute to) their colleagues' efforts horizontally in other departments, as well as vertically in their functional reporting area.

The job description. In addition to outlining functional responsibilities in the traditional manner, highlight the position's crossfunctional responsibilities and the relationships the individual is expected to develop outside the department or functional area. Point out any programs or services for which the position shares responsibility and accountability, as well as specific goals and objectives in the strategic plan.

The interview. This is a chance to intentionally probe for an ingrained silos mindset and identify a candidate's experience with projects involving widely shared accountability. Questions to pose might include:

  • Talk about a time when you were part of a crossfunctional team with shared responsibility and accountability for a major project. How did you contribute to the project's success? What did you learn about collaborating with colleagues when you don't have authority over them?
  • What specific actions would you take to cultivate relationships with individuals outside your department so that you can support their efforts and contribute to their success even if you are not directly assigned to projects with them?
  • How would you approach leveraging the ideas and experience of colleagues outside your department for the work you are doing?
  • You're part of a crossfunctional team that is struggling on a very visible association project whose financial success is critical. What would you do as a team member to help get the team on track and working together more

Also give careful consideration to the individuals a candidate speaks with or is interviewed by. If you are trying to create an interdependent and crossfunctional culture, a candidate's interview schedule shouldn't look like it is for an organization consisting of separate silos.

Systems thinking is defined by Virginia Anderson and Lauren Johnson in their book Systems Thinking Basics as "a school of thought that focuses on recognizing the interconnections between the parts of a system and synthesizing them into a unified view of the whole." Systems thinking takes a holistic and big-picture view, as opposed to one that is more simplistic and linear. It looks for solutions that acknowledge the dynamic, complex, and interconnected nature of relationships and activities. If we wish to better understand why silos still occur in organizations, systems thinking asks us to look beyond isolated events and to consider patterns of behavior and, even deeper, the structure, beliefs, or mental models that may be contributing to them.

Every association leader has to manage in the moment. But long-term change only occurs when we try to understand and address the individual mental models and belief systems that are getting in the way of desired results, as well as the organizational structures and practices that perpetuate silo thinking and behavior.

Individual Beliefs and Mental Models

An organization's first line of defense against an unhealthy silo mindset is the hiring process (see sidebar). But some silo beliefs and mindsets are bound to linger, and organizations should attempt to replace them with alternative thinking whenever possible. Here are some examples and suggested solutions.

I own this area. It's great when staff members have pride and ownership in their functional responsibilities, but taken to the extreme it can result in closemindedness against input and feedback from others outside their department. What could they possibly know about my area?

This is compounded by the fact that some individuals enter association work identifying most strongly with their functional area of expertise. ("I'm a marketer, not an association exec.") While such staff members often stay well informed about best practices and trends within their discipline and bring that knowledge to bear in their professional duties, this deep discipline identification can lead to them becoming even more insular and dismissive of others outside their functional area.

Alternative silo-busting belief: Individuals have ownership and authorship over their direct functional areas but must remain open to the ideas and editing of others, regardless of their job titles or functional expertise.

It's not my job. Some staff members have an almost slavish devotion to a job description and don't see their accountability for broader metrics such as member satisfaction and engagement, charitable contributions, or organizational reputation. So while the old axiom might say that "membership is everyone's business," some individuals might still see that as a function of the membership department.

Alternative silo-busting belief: Individuals are held accountable not only for executing their direct functional responsibilities, but also for contributing to the overall capacity and success of their department and the association and supporting their colleagues and their direct functional efforts.

Knowledge is power. Some individuals still closely guard information and knowledge as a way to garner and apply power. Ambitious individuals sometimes feel they gain a competitive advantage being in the know when others aren't, losing sight of the fact that they might actually achieve their desired clout by becoming a reliable source of useful information and knowledge, helping others, and advancing the organization's efforts.

Alternative silo-busting belief: The more we know, the more we can grow, so keeping others regularly informed and frequently sharing ideas, resources, and other knowledge enhances individuals' value to the organization.

Organizational Structure and Practices

Anthropologists discern culture by examining an organization's artifacts, heroic figures, norms, and rituals. Systems thinking suggests that individual and organizational change may come through modifying similar factors that might be allowing or sustaining silo beliefs and behaviors. Only a comprehensive audit will allow an association to achieve  anything close to a full elimination of organizational infrastructure that perpetuates silos. Here are a few of the most critical areas to examine.

Input and decision making. Organizations can disrupt the "I own this area" mindset noted above by encouraging (or requiring) broader and more diverse input into decisions and program development. In short, allow more people to have voice. Staff specialists don't relinquish their expertise to the wisdom of crowds; rather, they allow their knowledge to be informed and amplified by others' insights and perspectives.

When government agencies propose new regulations, a period for public comment is typically required. Associations could mirror this approach, creating face-to-face and online "commons" where document drafts, program outlines, or issue analyses can be opened to the masses for a limited time for input and reactions. Much research reinforces the assertions of popular authors like Gary Hamel (Leading the Revolution) and Frans Johansson (The Medici Effect) that innovation typically comes from the fringes of an organization and/or through the cross-pollination of ideas from different disciplines. We need to invite such thinking outside traditional silos and structures.

Meetings and conversations. An easy way to walk the talk of breaking down silos is to consider who we currently walk and talk with and change our patterns of interaction, a strategy suggested by Cynthia D'Amour, with People Power Unlimited, LLC. In a comment on ASAE & The Center's Acronym blog, D'Amour writes, "When I was VP communications and member services at the Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants, my teams were encouraged to create and use crossfunctional teams. We held editorial meetings with reps from almost all the major departments. Helped us to know what was going on across the association, helped us to get more done with less effort—and created a fuller picture for our members."

Meetings create and share meaning, and changing their patterns is a simple way to bridge silos. That being said, meetings are also time drains and can be the bane of a staffer's existence. To avoid negative repercussions from broadening meeting audiences, be
sure to

  • Share agendas in advance with timed items;
  • Allow individuals to attend only the portion of meetings where they can make a contribution;
  • When appropriate, let people share input in advance without attending;
  • Ensure meeting facilitators are appropriately skilled to manage conversations, particularly ones involving larger and more diverse groups of participants.

Strategy and accountability for results. As Sarah Lawler, manager of marketing for the American Association of Community Colleges, notes in her response to an Acronym post about silos, "Silos are formed when we get caught up in the minutiae. But if we take a look at 10,000 feet and 30,000 feet, it is a whole new perspective."

Any organizing unit can become a silo if it represents the only way people interact and collaborate.

Echoing Lawler in his response to the same blog post, Jamie Notter, vice president, organizational effectiveness, Management Solutions Plus, writes, "Without really clear strategic guides, you focus on getting your own department's work done. Clear strategy almost by definition will give silos a reason to talk and collaborate. It's not the only thing you need to break down silos, but it's a big one."

An association's strategic direction should offer a framework and use language that unites contributions from various individuals and functional areas whenever possible. While departments and individuals will outline more functionally specific objectives and tactics, the broader strategy must illuminate the interdependent and collaborative nature of how results will be achieved.

Resource allocation. Department managers are prone to being overprotective of their budget lines. Silos often can be tied to the power of the purse: how budget decisions affect an individual's direct responsibilities or a department's overall amount of resources. Individuals naturally try to protect the funds they currently manage, forgetting the money doesn't belong to them or their department. It belongs to the association and is there to best serve the most important bottom line: members' needs and aspirations.

Silos Hurt Members, Too

Talking about his book, Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, author Patrick Lencioni once said, "The key to eliminating silos is simply to provide a compelling context for colleagues to understand that they should be rowing in the same direction … why serving the common good is better for them than looking out for number one." Associations only exist to serve members and stakeholders, and the optimal structure is the one that best advances that cause, not the one that best meets the preferences of individual staff members or departments. Members care far more about the value delivered than the behind-the-scenes mechanics that create it.

When trying to bust silos, associations focus almost exclusively on reorganizing their structure and reporting responsibilities. But any organizing unit can become a silo if it represents the only way people gather, interact, share information, and collaborate. The key is to interrupt (but not completely disrupt) the natural patterns and boundaries that form through structures that do serve a useful purpose, by using crossfunctional efforts, diversified project teams, rotating job responsibilities, shifting office layouts, organizing staff meeting reports by project instead of department, and other easy-to-implement tactics.

Further, association leaders need to be careful about making the association a silo unto itself in the field of other organizations serving similar professions or industries, as well as others with competing or complementary goals. An association and its leaders can manifest externally the same internal beliefs and structural challenges just outlined.

Guidelines, boundaries, and routine practices serve a purpose. They help orient us to our responsibilities and how things get done. Over time, however, they can become hardened walls that foster independence and separateness rather than the interdependent and collaborative culture often required for success. Using a systems thinking approach to consider your association's structure and its staff members' beliefs and mental models might help you prevent permeable boundaries from becoming the impenetrable barriers of silos.

Perhaps best known for designing and facilitating ASAE & The Center's Future Leaders Conference from 1998-2007, Jeffrey Cufaude strives to advance the association community through his writing, speaking, and facilitating. Email:

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