Effective Collaboration

Collaboration Collapse: Why Eliminating Silos Is a Bad Idea

By on February 4, 2016
collaboration collapse

Silos can be cool, too.

Conventional business wisdom tells us to crush our silos and pursue collaboration whenever we can. Here’s what can happen if we do that.

***

Let it be known: I love collaboration. I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time studying it, and I’ve written about it for Harvard Business Review, The Guardian, and Newsweek. I believe the future of work depends on it, and that collaboration is the heartbeat of social impact in our increasingly globalized economy.

These beliefs grew because I’ve had the privilege to travel all over the world to see collaboration work in a variety of ways. I saw it happen among grassroots nonprofits in Ethiopia and international philanthropic consulting firms; among Oxford researchers and global health activists in Bangladesh; among union representatives and striking nurses in Pennsylvania; and, most recently, I saw how collaboration among community leaders in refugee camps throughout Myanmar is truly a matter of life or death.

But I didn’t just see and study collaboration, I’ve been part of it. Over the span of 9 years as an educator, I generally advocated for and participated in community, departmental, and student collaboration whenever I could—most fervently in the last few years, guided by the light of evidence suggesting that students today have 40% less empathy than those of a few generations ago (and TMT readers know how much I dig empathy).

While my studies, travels, and experiences have shown me much of collaboration’s brilliance, they’ve also routinely exposed collaboration’s most obvious flaw: too much of it is a pretty terrible thing.

And we’re all guilty of doing it.

I believe many organizations have reached collaboration collapse, a saturation point whereby our obsession to collaborate has blinded us in such a way that we’ll pursue it even if doing so is counterproductive. The rosy picture of collaboration we’ve bought into, that in modern business it’s “next to godliness,” has enabled us to cast aside the stark reality: collaboration is one crucial element for us to work better together. One of them.

Working in silos, concentrated periods of deep work in a vacuum by individuals or small teams, is another one of them.

So a company that culls all of its silos and stacks on the collaboration will eventually come crashing down, perhaps in unexpected ways.

Yet that’s precisely what so many companies are told to do.

A Google search for “eliminate silos” brings up 11,000 results, the top post being a Forbes article titled Breaking Down Silos, in which the author states:

“Silos can occur in global corporations or start-up ventures with 15 employees. And no matter the size, they are detrimental to an organization’s ability to succeed in a rapidly changing world.”

For perspective, “eliminate some silos” brings up 8 results; it’s a perfect example of how bold and generalized truisms can become conventional wisdom, while more humble and nuanced thoughts barely light a spark.

Why collaboration collapse happens

Too much collaboration can arise either because a relationship began directly through collaboration (like when two companies merge to work on a project) and the involved parties didn’t know how to move forward without it, and/or because internal pressures (a team’s relationship dynamics, for example) and external pressures (influential business leaders pushing persuasive messages in major publications, for example) led to its overuse.

Much of what I studied internationally had to do with collaboration across different organizations, but it’s easy to see how collaboration collapse can take root in a typical progressive startup.

When the company first began, collaboration likely played a major role in how the leadership team made decisions. When they were a team of three they kicked ideas back and forth on a regular basis, eventually ping-ponging toward a consensus. But what about when the team grows to 5 or 12, or 57? What about when roles change and a relatively flat team now begins to develop structure?

The relationships formed in the early stage carry deep bonds, and the ways of working then can be perceived as how there can be success now. The problem of too much collaboration arises when each leader—now splintered off into their own role and with their own teams—can’t cut those cords. Many decisions now rest on their shoulders, yet they spend precious resources trying to get one of the other leaders caught up on all that’s going on (for the sake of ping-ponging to a consensus, like old times). This process can be a tremendous hit to individual and company productivity.

As Mark Nichols wrote in Hiring Friends Won’t Destroy Your Business, But Terrible Communication Will, part of leading a startup is a mindset that you don’t fully know what you’re doing. Who does? Well, it’s easy to turn to the wildly successful experts writing at publications like Forbes and Entrepreneur. As I alluded to above, there’s a fairly clear consensus among most of the powerful sources of knowing out there: we should eliminate silos and pursue collaboration whenever we can.

The advice is often positioned as some epic battle of Good vs. Evil, that leaders in their metal mesh jackets should slay the dragon named Silos in order to collaborate. A recent article at Forbes puts it like this, and there are thousands of similar articles all pushing forth the same idea:

“Silos stifle communication and prevent teams from working together to achieve organizational objectives. Chief marketing officers, with their focus on the customer, are ideally positioned to bust silos and promote the kind of collaboration that leads to a better customer experience and real growth.”

But what can happen when silos are targeted and dismantled because… because?

Those that may have been incredibly productive, important parts of the overall team are lost, all for the sake of possibly productive collaboration—and all because the powers that be pushed the bold but generic message (and framed it as though a company must choose between the two or risk failing miserably).

Thankfully, scholars are increasingly studying how best to collaborate, and this involves questioning what has long went unquestioned. It also means they are researching workplace productivity both at the employee and company level.

In their article for Harvard Business Review titled Collaborative Overload, researchers Cross, Rebele and Grant open with:

“Collaboration is taking over the workplace. As business becomes increasingly global and cross-functional, silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success. According to data we have collected over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.

“Certainly, we find much to applaud in these developments. However, when consumption of a valuable resource spikes that dramatically, it should also give us pause. Consider a typical week in your own organization. How much time do people spend in meetings, on the phone, and responding to e-mails? At many companies the proportion hovers around 80%, leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own. Performance suffers as they are buried under an avalanche of requests for input or advice, access to resources, or attendance at a meeting. They take assignments home, and soon, according to a large body of evidence on stress, burnout and turnover become real risks.”

The researchers at once acknowledge the importance of collaboration while questioning the relationship dynamics of having too much of it, all while lending scientific credence to the “critical work [employees] must complete on their own.” The piece also addresses how collaborative work is often lopsided in companies because those more willing naturally take it on (and receive requests to do so), and how women (due to the caregiver stereotype) tend to bear more of the burden.

Signs of collaboration collapse to look for

As noted above, a workplace culture obsessed with collaboration might not be fully aware of how its environment has become unproductive. Here are a few signs to look for:

-Employees routinely turn to each other when they don’t need to

-Meetings are mandatory, routinely drag on, and rarely end with (or result in) something actionable

-Employees routinely find themselves in meetings that are barely or in no way related to their personal or company-wide productivity

-Employees routinely feel guilty when they say no, or when they otherwise want to set boundaries in order to maximize their focus

Notice the key word here? Routinely. As great as collaboration can be, we do our company and our colleagues a major disservice if we don’t question why we’re doing it, if we default to collaboration based on routine rather than need.

The Collaborative Overload authors paint the particularly burdened employee’s perspective like this:

“We find that what starts as a virtuous cycle soon turns vicious. Soon helpful employees become institutional bottlenecks: Work doesn’t progress until they’ve weighed in. Worse, they are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective. And more often than not, the volume and diversity of work they do to benefit others goes unnoticed, because the requests are coming from other units, varied offices, or even multiple companies.”

A (middle) way forward

It’s not a bold and generic truism, but here’s what I found to be true:

Company leaders must foster a workplace culture that values and continually optimizes both its silos and its collaborations.

This can be achieved through a variety of measures—from leadership that routinely questions the effectiveness of both, to office design that provides a mix of open and closed spaces.

A natural outcome of not embracing this middle way is that the company may be forced into one of two unproductive polarities. Either they will go all-in on collaboration and lose those crucial periods of intense concentration that productive knowledge workers need, or the company will drift toward the kind of uncommunicative and ultimately inefficient ways of working that can happen when organizational silos are allowed to metastasize.

The praises for collaboration have been sung, and someone is singing them now. Good. But let’s not forget to praise the silo, the existence of which allows us “…to filter out irrelevant information and highlight what’s important.”

After all, if deep work really is the killer app in our knowledge economy, the time is now to reevaluate how we’ve come to see and use our silos.

Has your team suffered from collaboration collapse? How did you know it was happening? Likewise, have you found value in silos?

***

-Lead Artist: Os Gêmeos, photo by paperpariah

TAGS
  • Alicia Parr Crumpler

    Good piece. I’ll share a couple of observations I’ve made that relate closely to the points made above.
    First is the frequent conflation of consensus with collaboration. They aren’t the same thing. Collaboration can occur without consensus and is, in general, more productive when all collaborators have clear roles with clear decision-making accountability. This includes lateral accountabilities and such as audit, advisory, etc. in addition to IDing who has authority to make a final call on something after adequate collaborative input.
    Second is a tendency I’ve seen referred to as polarity thinking. When confronted with the inevitable downsides of an approach that’s being over-used, there’s a tendency to ascribe ‘silver bullet’ status to polar opposite approach. Downsides of the idealized approach are overlooked. Over time, this can result in flip flopping between silver bullet solutions trying to fix the downsides of the current approach. As you describe, attending to the movement between approaches and identifying best use cases of each can help reduce the systematic overuse of any one approach. It’s hard to do that!

    • Thanks, Alicia! Your two observations certainly align well and add to the piece. I especially liked your point about how we tend to think “flip flopping between silver bullet solutions” will shore up the problems that arose from… embracing silver bullet solutions. “Attending to the movement between” really is hard to do, especially if it’s not something we routinely practice in our lives outside of work. Thanks again for checking in and sharing your insights!

  • The silos pictured were painted by Os Gêmeos.

  • Lawrence Polsky

    Cameron – Thank you for this thought provoking article! I agree there are cases of collaboration collapse and overload. In my experience this is a failure of individuals and leaders. Common mistakes by people are inviting too many people who are not needed to meetings, invitees not having the courage to say NO I don’t need to be there, poorly run meetings which don’t leverage peoples time. These can be reversed with proper leadership and education. Additionally, there is often poor oversight/governance of priorities, which pulls people into too many directions.

    On the other side, outside of startups and tech firms, many larger firms I work with, continue to struggle to move to collaboration. They need to see the value proposition – why should I? They need to understand the larger goals and how sub departments are intertwined in achieving them – even have more team goals than individual performance goals.

    Lastly, the definition of silos used in this article – deep work – is not what I have seen or heard meant by silos. I see silos as departments / groups that do work without the proper involvement of others. Like an engineering department that is designing buildings for the regions without proper input on the needs from the region. This is more often the case than not. And these leaders and organizations need to be pushed and inspired to collaborate.

    • Thank you for the read and comment, Lawrence! I’m really interested in this idea of saying No as an act of courage. How would you suggest leadership/education can help combat this? In other words, how can a workplace culture be created where No isn’t so negative, so frowned upon?

      Also, great point about collaboration still not taking root in big companies. This, I imagine, is where the traditional silo definition (of being worthless, hidden tanks) likely grew from.

      Again – thanks for stopping by TMT and sharing your insights!

      • Lawrence Polsky

        Cameron – Most people don’t want to say NO to requests because they appear to be negative. Most like to say YES to things asked of them – because it makes them seem like a team player. Yet they then become overloaded, as your article describes. Our research shows 80%+ don’t do anything after saying yes if this request requires some kind of change. Leaders need to give options – instead of saying yes: For example: ” Yes I can do it and it will take this long and the other 2 projects I am working on will be delayed” rather than just saying “Yes”. It becomes the culture when people simply start talking this way. This is easily taught to leaders, who often forget they can do this – they often think in a binary way – yes/mo

      • Lawrence – this is fascinating. 80%? Wow. Feel free to share a link to some of that research as an additional comment here. Also – I read your latest post about collaboration on LinkedIn. Well done!

  • hallyb

    I rather like how you’ve called collaboration out, so to speak, ‘The advice is often positioned as some epic battle of Good vs. Evil’. It’s looking like collaboration used as an imperative or as propaganda could readily result in corrupting the delicate process of creativity.

    I like the going against the grain aspect of this article. You bring up some resonant points. The phrase, ‘…while more humble and nuanced thoughts barely light a spark’ was particularly interesting for me due to the fact that people are inherently complicated if not messy and getting people to work together to solve challenging problems cannot be managed without sensitivity and humility – nuanced thoughts are required to navigate the complex systems of teams. The more one is self-aware the less chance the ego will get in the way of a breakthrough. Is being more authentic or maybe even self-actualized, the new collaboration?

    The other thing is the goal, right? So if you’re collaborating to reach the goal of a customer centered solution, then that collaboration has the potential to solve for those given pain points which could lead to great innovation, big or small. But if the goal of the collaboration is dictated purely by financial models, then collaboration could backfire and fall short of solving actual customer problems. This collaboration effort can be further undermined by what you explain as recycling old patterns of behavior that may have brought success at one point in time, but now the circumstances have changed considerably. Perhaps this team has lost its ability to develop authentically and is now too afraid of risk. Risk that may not necessarily be financial but rather the unraveling of a comfortable interpersonal dynamic or a familiar way of doing things. So people want to continue to collaborate but with a tight grip, now collaborating is just colleagues hustling to keep everyone informed of all the bad decisions that are being made.

    I’ve also recently read that collaborative teams when dissected, expose that it can actually be just one person who’s doing all the heavy lifting and the others on the team are just along for the ride. And that this can result in the burning out of really creative and talented individuals. You’d probably bet that there’s little chance of sustainable innovation in this scenario and what a shame if there’s really such little collaboration actually happening all in the name of this bold generic imperative called collaboration.

    This is my big takeaway as you’ve written, ‘Company leaders must foster a workplace culture that values and continually optimizes both its silos and its collaborations.’ As with many things we tend to swing the pendulum too far in extremes, yet striking a good balance is often times the best place to be working from. Thanks for starting this conversation into what now looks to be a pivotal topic.

    • Hally – your comment here may take the cake as the best we’ve ever had at TMT. It’s certainly in the running! Thank you for taking the time to really dig into the article.

      I enjoyed your framing collaboration as potential propaganda. In some ways, I think you’re right – it certainly can be portrayed as the only way, and when an entire workplace, community, culture embraces it as the only way? That’s a time when, as the researchers at Harvard Business Review pointed out, it’s worth pausing.

      Regarding “being more authentic or maybe even self-actualized,” you bring up a great point. The trend curve is bending in that direction, especially with the rise of Radical Candor and Mindful Leadership – ways of working that put realness and empathy at the forefront of management.

      Right on about the goal! Collaboration collapse begins to happen when the goal isn’t at the forefront. How can we best manage that project? How can that particular customer’s support ticket be handled? What direction do we want our company to go in as it starts to grow? These are questions, big and small, that demand a goal-oriented approach, which means having a goal and finding the best approach to get there. Again… questioning! 🙂

      Great point about how collaborative teams tend to have one person carrying the load. This is an area I’d like to explore more to see what the research says. I’m certainly open to reading whatever you’ve written or found on this topic. Please feel free to share it through an additional comment.

      Thanks again for your valuable contribution here, Hally. The comments are often what make our articles here shine.

      -Cameron

  • Cameron, your article provoked me to investigate my blanket assumption that silos are bad. I agree that deep work is essential, collaboration is seen as good (in general), silos are seen as bad (in general), and too much collaboration is blamed for hurting productivity. The question is what should stem the flow of information sharing, in effect, stop the over-collaboration. Should it be silos or something else?

    Because a silo is commonly understood to be a mentality that involves protecting power and status (“What Do Silos Mean in Business Culture” by Audra Blanca—http://yourbusiness.azcentral.com/silos-mean-business-culture-3448.html ), it concerns me to rely on that motivation to control over-collaborating. So, I think instead of silos being relied upon to regulate the amount of collaboration, it should be some sort of research-driven productivity tool that predicts how much sharing is enough—maybe an adaptation of the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 rule) applied to collaboration and information sharing, adopted by all departments of an organization. I wish I had such a tool!

    • Tad – first, it’s been great to connect with you and dig a bit into your own work and philosophy. Second, I’m glad the article provoked you to question a blanket assumption! That’s part of what we’re trying to do here, and what I think was at the heart of some of the “Collaborative Overload” research I shared in the piece. Part of what sparked this article was actually those types of business definitions of silos. Each one I came across described them as monstrous. They certainly can grow to be, but I was interested in exploring… but are they by their very nature? Also… such a productivity tool would be quite impressive, especially if it was a principle that was intuitive enough for teams to grasp without having to undergo some kind of extensive training. Thanks again for your comment, Tad!

  • Sam Quayle

    Good article but I think there’s a distinction to be made between organisational silos and individual deep working.

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