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Systems Thinking: How to Break Down Silos & Build a Collaborative Culture

Companies built on silos are long a thing of the past. Or perhaps we wish they were. Silos by their very name implies an archaic way of doing things – and at worst suggests that the organization is inefficient or that employees are entrenched in positions and operating out of sync from the whole.

To be clear, by silos I don’t mean how an organization arranges itself (Here is where the sales folks sit; there is where the engineers work.) Nor are silos necessarily synonymous with conflict, although they have the propensity for them. Silos have, rather, a certain way of doing things. They have working internal cultures that perpetuate a perceived efficiency.

In other words, silos are their own mini-organizations. Where they get themselves in trouble is when they fail to see their impact on the whole system.

How to break them down? Enter Systems Thinking.

Systems thinking is a critical leadership skill. Being able to evaluate the sustainability of long-term high productivity, to pay attention to the complex interaction of variables and to be concerned with the community as a whole, are some system thinking competencies.

How to apply them in real time? You might try this exercise on honoring diversity among silos.

1. We commit to the whole of the organization and recognize each department/silo has a role in the organization – for the sake of the whole organization.

2. Each silo seeks to understand each silo. We ask open-ended questions. We remain curious. We try really hard not to judge and admit when we do.

3. We repeat back what we have learned from the silo about its culture. We ask what we missed. We continue to seek to understand.

4. Each silo does this for the others until everyone has had a chance to share their cultures.

5. We ask to collaborate. We ask everyone to name the best thing that each silo brings to the whole organization. In this way, everyone in the organization has responsibility for creating and maintaining its culture.

Creating a new culture certainly does not happen overnight. But it starts somewhere. Refusing to tolerate inefficient silos is a beginning. How we apply the valuable information from them to the greater good of the organization speaks to a different, more collaborative kind of culture, where diversity is honored and responsibility held among many.

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