Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Leadership, Silos and Turf Wars

Siloj0353201jpeg "Dave, I hear you've been calling engineers in Chicago again." My boss wrinkled his brow.

"Yes Doug, they need to do something about our cardiac software. It's killing our customers." I had done clinical research in the area prior to joining the company and I had a good idea of what they needed to do.

"Dave, they know about the problem. I told you before, stop calling them. They are in engineering, you are in sales."

I didn't want to lose my job, so I stopped calling my engineering friends.


How often do people in your organization think in silos or battle over turf? The answer for most organizations: A LOT. Because organizations are structured into departments, divisions, and units, the business responsibilities, goals, objectives of the leaders in these units are usually set independently of each other. The leaders’ financial and emotional incentives are often dependent upon achieving specific goals for their individual units. They therefore focus only on their goals, their silos. (One of the executives I’m coaching recently corrected me, “They’re not silos, they are cylinders of excellence!”)

The segmentation of work arose from the foundations of the Industrial Revolution, where the division of labor was thought to be the best way to achieve efficient operations. However, the nature of today's work often transcends these internal borders. The rapid pace of change, global forces, and hyper-competition… demand that leaders collaborate (co-labor) with those in other units to achieve their objectives and the goal of the whole. If an enterprise is going to survive, leaders must think systemically. (1)

An organization, like the human body, is a system – “a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole." System thinking is the ability to contemplate these elements, their patterns, and their interactions with each other. My manager in the opening story was doing what most leaders do -- his part. He treated his part as a separate element without much thought to the whole. He and most of the managers in the field, as well as the engineers in the home office, were blind to the needs of the system. Unfortunately, this had grave implications for our sales. When the next release of software hit the market, our customers hit the roof. The software did not meet their needs and sales plummeted. I'm convinced it was because the engineers in the home office and the sales organization were guilty of silo thinking, which lead to turf wars. They mismanaged the paradoxical tension between meeting their individual needs and the needs of the organization. They thought only about their trees, not the whole forest. How about you?

When a situation, challenge, or problem arises, how often does focusing on your part blind you to the needs of the whole? Listed below are a few of the symptoms indicating that leaders are not thinking systemically:

⊗ Lack of creativity in dealing with challenges

⊗ Previously applied fixes create negative consequences elsewhere

⊗ After a fix is applied the problem returns in time

⊗ Leaders who were partners for growth become adversaries

⊗ Leaders compete for limited resources to achieve individual goals

⊗ Conversations often contain the words I, me, my, mine...

Do any of these look familiar? How do you deal with them? What tools do you use to manage the tension between the part and the whole? Let me know…

Keep eXpanding,

P.S. The web-based eXpansive Leadership Method (XLM) Assessment measures paradox in leadership using the “Agility Score.” Within minutes of completing your assessment (which takes less than 20 minutes to fill out), you can download your highly personalized Profile - a comprehensive, 21 + page report and customized action plan in PDF format. Go to: to read about the assessment.

1. Joseph McCann; Organizational Effectiveness: Changing Concepts for Changing Environments, Human Resource Planning, 3/1/2004.

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