05 May 2015

Can Restructuring Break Down Organisation Silos?

One way organisations try to improve collaboration is to restructure, for example moving from a functional, hierarchical to a matrix structure. Structures do need to be contingent and in today’s world there is a need for more cross-functional as well as inter-organisation working. But does structural change lead to the changes in working relationships needed to achieve the required results? My answer is: only if the relationships are given equal attention alongside other aspects of business planning and delivery.

People in organisations default naturally to silo working. Two key personal benefits of silo working mentioned in my book – what people hang on to – are belonging and control. These are fundamental desires that people have at different stages of relationship development (Schutz 1988). Some of the things they don’t like about ‘out of silo’ working are: 

  • The potential lack of clarity
  • Increased workload
  • Trusting others that they perceive as less capable
  • The complexity of dealing with different people
  • Compromising on preferred ways of doing things 

In short, it’s about comfort with the familiar, including relationships, and retaining a sense of control. People want to do what they came to do, such as focus on their specialist work and deliver results – preferably without the delays that wider engagement might involve. This affects the level of contact and degree of openness that people need to work together within teams and across organisations. 

One implication is that working relationships may not be aligned with new governance structures. Some people will continue to get things done in a way they are used to and through people they feel comfortable with. This can lead to confusion and stress in the organisation as the necessary adaptations are not realised. 

Work on developing new relationships needs to happen at strategic and operational levels – getting the right operating framework in place and making sure that changes in working relationships are built into the day-to-day work, for example projects with relationship and decision-making plans. Work I have done with leaders and teams has helped them examine their current networks and reconfigure them according to the priorities of the new context. They can be surprised how much time and energy they are putting into relationships that are no longer a priority, sometimes because those people are also investing their time and energy in them – and that feels good! They may need to maintain working relationships, but realign them with the new governance arrangements. 

The complexity of organisations and change can reinforce a natural tendency to work in silos. Unless time and energy is put into developing working relationships following a restructuring, serious business consequences can emerge.