How Functional Silos Can Damage Your Company

We’re a small company and Pete officially handles customer support calls.   A few minutes ago the phone rang but Pete had just stepped out to grab a coffee.  Nobody reacted.   When we get voicemail in the support inbox, the ‘beep’ is audible throughout the office since we’re in an open concept office.

The phone rang again.  Again nobody reacted so I grabbed it figuring that the odds are a client is having a serious problem.  My spidey sense was right.  I didn’t know exactly what to do but I’ve done customer support before so I gathered some data and asked somebody else in the office to help me.  Client issue resolved.

Why is it that nobody reacted?  Well, I will assume that people don’t think it’s their job to answer the support phone.  Again, it’s not that people are bad and feel that “hey, it’s not my job”, it’s probably the result of the desire to have functional silos.  After all, if we’re all responsible for everything, that means nobody is responsible.  From  my experience, that’s typically the argument people have against Agile and general specialists.

That’s a load of bull.

Generalizing specialists and a team commitment to excellence is a world apart from the airy-fairy “hey, we’re all in this together!” stuff.  So how can functional silos damage your business?  Well, let’s suppose I don’t answer that call.  The client calls back.  And then again.  And again.  Then the client calls the sales person who sold them the solution.  She tells her boss who tells the CEO who marches over to the CTO and comes down on him.

What’s likely to happen?  Pete gets in trouble.  The process gets tweaked for whatever reason and a whole lotta blame gets tossed around.  Who’s fault is it?  Pete for not being at his desk every second for the whole day?  The CTO for not having enough “process governance” or documentation?  The customer for over-reacting?  The sales person for escalating the call?

The effects are systemic.  That means when your organization has, and encourages, functional silos you get what you design.  You have set the expectation that Pete is responsible for support.  You have set the expectation that process and individual responsibility is more important than organizational goals, whether it be implicit or not.    Who am I referring to as “You”? I don’t know.  Leaders and executives organize companies based on what they know.  Their entire career they’ve been taught, trained and have experienced how organizational structures are created, how to make process, how to dangle the carrot and how to wield the stick.  They too make decisions that are a result of systemic effects.

The solution is pretty simple.  Hierarchy and organizational structure don’t matter.  No way, shape or form do they matter.  Let me repeat that to everyone who, in the heads, said “this guys has no idea what he’s talking about, if you don’t have well defined responsibility, you have chaos!” (or some variation on that).    Create your organization to support the work you are doing.  This means the more you apply the concept of ‘generalizing specialists‘, the better your chance at being a great company.

Understand the work your company does and understand the impact functional silos and process have on how your employees behave.   Don’t simply create a structure because that’s the way everybody else does it.   As soon as your focus shifts to hierarchy, titles and how to create responsibility though silos, you’ve created the work system and you need to live with those impacts.