Silos, Slabs, and Seams
It’s common for people to complain about silos in the organization. It’s also common to complain about disconnects between different layers in the organization, typically voiced as “The leadership has no idea what’s happening at the front lines!” McGill professor Henry Mintzberg calls these layers “slabs” which leaves us with the common feeling that what’s wrong with the organization is the silos and slabs that get in the way of coordination.
However, as Mintzberg is quick to point out we need silos and slabs. To make an effective organization you absolutely need to divide up the work into different departments, hence you need to create silos. Similarly, as an organization grows it needs a management hierarchy. Hence you need to create slabs.
The goal should not be to eliminate silos or slabs. The goal according to Mintzberg is to be thoughtful in how you manage the “seams” between them. It’s a fresh way to frame the problem, and it moves us away from complaining about a necessary feature of organizations and moving towards focusing on solutions.
There are many ways to manage the seams, and each has trade-offs, however, a judicious mix of methods, designed to your particular circumstances can lead to a good outcome.
Some of the methods you might use to manage the seams between silos are:
· Go up the hierarchy: there will be a point in the hierarchy where two silos have a common leader. If there are problems in coordinating silos then the fastest route to a solution is often through this common leader.
· Cross-functional teams: Sometimes chronic conflict can be resolved by getting all the right people together in one room. This might be a one-time event or an ongoing team for seam management.
· Internal lateral movement: Moving people between silos improves understanding and creates an informal internal network so that silos work better together.
· Standardization: When there are clear rules for how things are done or clearly defined outputs then there is often less friction between silos.
· Changing the incentives: Often silos are at each other’s throats because they are incentivized to work against each other. For example, a sales department incentivized to sell products irrespective of the impact on operations is bound to create tensions.
Some of the methods you might use to manage the seams between slabs are:
· Internal promotion: Senior managers who have come up through the ranks are more likely to understand and empathize with the issues faced by people in lower slabs.
· Employee listening processes: Constantly gathering information from employees can help leaders better understand what employees are experiencing.
· Bringing senior managers to the front line: A useful practice is having senior managers spend a day on the front line. That practice can prevent future misunderstandings.
· Culture: A strong culture can ease the tensions between both silos and slabs since it leads to common values and a common mission.
When a manager starts complaining about silos or slabs then guide the conversation into one about seams. Consider what problems are arising and which mix of seam management methods is best. HR has a special role to play in this because many of the methods fall in HR’s domain and are best deployed before problems arise. In an organization where HR has tended the methods for managing the seams then the problems of silos and slabs may never feel too severe.
Note: Mintzberg’s masterful new book “Understanding organizations…finally!” provides a wealth of insight into how organizations work.