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I work on the principle that if I hear of a problem three times from different organisations I assume that it is the “problem of the month” and needs addressing. And it would seem that working across silos is the “problem of the month.”

But how does it relate to Governance? A good question, because directors do not (or should not) worry about management issues. And this is a management issue. But many of our smaller businesses and our NFP sector management and the directors may be one and the same person. Or the manager may not have the resources to solve gritty human problems like this. And the least the board can do is to give guidance to the manager if that is required.

It is hard to imagine silos in small organisations. After all if there are five different groups consisting of 4-5 people per group you would think that they were barely big enough to be a silo consisting of the whole lot of them. But no, they work in clusters, relate in clusters and meet in clusters.

So let us think how this plays out in the work place. To do this I will use a case study slightly disguised to save embarrassment.

The organisation is a community trust providing a variety of activities and has five cost centres, or silos. They came to me because they are concerned that the silo behaviour does not reflect the community values of support, positivity and co-operation. Each sector has their own space for several reasons. One is that the old building is made up of a series of rooms and there is no money for internal restructuring or indeed in moving. A matter of noise or clutter can also separate various groups and also the need for a very professional space for the business unit and an artistic space for the artists who need creative space.

There is also a considerable difference in attitude from commercial and business-like to free flowing ideas and creative. Some staff are of different nationality and do not converse as easily as others.

This is demonstrated by the fact that some individuals only acknowledge their colleagues in their own rooms, ignoring the others as they pass in the open spaces. They may get coffee for their own group but rarely ask someone working alone in the next room if they would like coffee too. They do not show interest in what the other groups do, and there is no cross fertilisation. Building design does not make it easy for “water cooler” conversation which might cross barriers.

A key problem of patch protection is that there is limited money and each is trying to preserve their own job. They have not thought strategically about how more bang for the buck might be gained if they work collaboratively.

The up shot is that there is little collegiality or sense of community.

What to do? What I have done that does seem to be working, albeit slowly is to hold a series of workshops focussing on the future. A new service requires collaboration and for a while no collaboration was being achieved.

But we held a workshop to develop a co-ordinated plan focussed on each group’s different ways of working, timing, and thinking. There was one group who always left things till the last minute, giving the belts and braces people who finished their component early feeling edgy and worried. Those who were productive in the afternoon found it hard to be helpful in the morning. And even food intake affected how they worked.

Using large sheets of paper, and working across the silos they started talking with each other about how what worked for them, and what sent them into despair. Over the day, using large sheets of paper, they developed timetables, and work sheets for the project that made sense to themselves and each other. Once they accepted that they were not all alike and that different ways of working were not in fact malicious and spiteful behaviour, they made progress.

Hallelujah! Progress at last.

Just today, several months after I wrote the above case study, I had a call from the CE, who wanted to tell me that all was going brilliantly. People were working collaboratively and the silos had disappeared. They were more than reaching their targets, and new programmes were being designed. The two really difficult people have left as they couldn’t cope with the change in attitude where positivity not negativity was the accepted practice.

The systems are now being put in place around this new collaborative workplace, and as the money becomes available they are redesigning the workspace to encourage discussion and friendships.

It is lovely when clients ring you up just to say how excited they are that the professional development and workshops were effective.