Recently I did a survey that asked people what one of their most common issues was when it comes to workplace collaboration.
You’re probably not surprised to learn that one of the most common issues was that many people feel like they’re working in a silo. They feel disconnected from other departments or from the company’s overall direction. There is a lot of flow going up and down but none through and across.
It’s not surprising that working in silos is such a common problem. Often silos are built out of necessity, to group things together as organizations get larger, and it’s easy for the flow between departments to disintegrate.
I'd like to tell you about an experience I had during the early stages of my career as an orchestral musician and how I first learned about breaking through silos.
The Percussion Room.
Back when I was in music school, I spent a great deal of time in the University percussion studio with my percussion colleagues. That was our domain: the percussion room. It was a great place, filled with instruments, and we would probably spend 10 to 16 hours a day in this room, practicing hard and just hanging out (on Friday nights, we’d even sneak in some beer and practice till security kicked us out).
We drummers were a bonded group. We had all been through the arduous audition process and made it into the school. We all loved playing drums and other percussion instruments. We all understood the challenges and roles of our instrument. I didn’t realize it then, but I was in a silo. And we weren’t the only ones. All the trombones or brass instruments could be found together, all the flute players, all the piano players and so on.
Our department head was our private lesson teacher and in lessons he’d spend hours working with us so we could be great at our craft, our job. While we got better at what we had to do, we didn’t spend nearly as much time talking about how we needed to connect our role to other sections.
Where the silos really started to show was in the rehearsal process.
When we would go into rehearsal, we were, of course, grouped together in our appropriate section as were all the other instrumentalists. If the conductor picked on one of us, our group would be supportive, often supporting us instead of the conductor. (After all, we knew more about our instrument than a conductor).
If we had to play something that had to be played in conjunction with other sections and it wasn’t going well, we would think it was probably the fault of the other section. Our silo was the best! Because we only spent time with these other sections in rehearsal, we had a kind of “us versus them” attitude.
One day this all changed for me.
We had a guest conductor whose attitude during rehearsal was one of great respect for all his musicians. Upon taking the podium, he shared his vision for the piece with us despite our youthful inexperience. He told us why he loved performing this piece and what he wanted to try to do with it.
He spent the rehearsals working on all the little things that connected each section. He worked on little individual passages that most people wouldn’t notice, the points of connection that were like glue between sections. He made us aware of the key areas where we needed to listen more carefully to be better connected.
He took the time to compliment the great musicianship of the players in the sections as well. He would acknowledge players after they played difficult solo passages.
He made all of us feel that it was his honour to be listening to us play.
The experience was magical. I loved going to rehearsal and couldn’t wait for the performance, which, by the way, turned out to be wonderful.
When I look back now, I realize that what this conductor did was melt down the silos and create an attitude of respect between sections. He made the orchestra realize the incredible talent in the room and created an attitude that made us want to be more connected. Eventually every player was looking for ways to make the piece more connected.
Conductors like that are rare.
As I continued in my musical career, I learned that not every conductor was going to be like that special fellow who brought us all together back then, and if I was going to be a part of creating a great performance, I would need to develop that conductor’s attitude in myself.
I would have to look for the little connections that make pieces of music sound great. I would have to be respectful of other great musicianship in the other sections. I would have to take the time to learn about how the parts fit together.
Sometime during rehearsal breaks, I would go and look at other peoples’ music to try to better understand how our parts fit together. I discovered that if I did these things, it did not matter who the conductor was. It’s nice to have a great conductor but it’s the attitude of the players that makes all the difference. You would be surprised how well a great orchestra can play without a conductor.
So what about your organization? Does it feel too siloed? What can you do to make it more connected? Here are some choices:
Choice 1 - The long shot
You can wait until your organization’s leadership (either present or new) starts to see that building connections between silos is important and takes the proper steps to do it. In other words, wait for that rare conductor.
However you may want to consider that in Stephen Covey’s book, “The 8'th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness”, he cites a poll of 23,000 employees across a number of industries. In that poll, only 37 percent of the employees said they have a clear understanding of what their company was trying to achieve and why. So, waiting for your organization to get that great conductor could take awhile, or it could never happen.
Choice 2- You can lead the charge yourself to break down the silos.
Here’s how you might do that, in three differing levels:
You can mention in meetings that you would like to learn more about what’s going on in other departments. This works especially well if you can cite a reason why. For example, talk about things that would have either: a) gone more smoothly, b) increased profit, c) increased efficiency, d) saved money, if your department had known more about the other department’s involvement. In other words, you need to prove that better connections between silos would have made a final outcome better for everyone, not just yourself.
You can be the one who, over time, does some homework on the connections between your company silos, and you share that information with others on your team. Slowly create an attitude of being more connected; be an underground agent of change. Sounds cool, huh?
You can be the one who offers to organize a time every so often where every department takes the opportunity to learn more about other departments and discusses the points where they could be more connected. Most people are really glad to hear about this and eventually it will be the norm in your organization.
So, if you’re tired of the status quo, it’s time to do something about it. It all starts with an attitude, an example, a desire to learn more. You need to plant a seed and find others who want to help it grow. If YOU feel this way, you can’t be alone.
I was lucky.
My orchestral experience allowed me to instantly see and hear the results of sections (silos) that were better connected. However, it wasn’t until I adopted an attitude of looking for points of connection that I really was able to make a difference when I work with others. It’s a skill I still use today when I perform and something that I pass on to the people who experience my corporate programs.
I’ll give you that it’s a little harder when you are working with people who aren’t on a stage with you and are not in close proximity, but there are lots of ways you can be connected these days other than in person, if you want to be.
I invite you to start thinking of your organization as a large musical ensemble that sounds best when all the parts are in sync. If you’re tired of being disconnected, figure out what needs to happen to make it more connected and start floating those ideas. Start talking about it, start suggesting things, and you will begin to get traction towards making real change.