Thoughts about breaking silos of software engineering teams

Or don’t break silos, but push out the silo mentality.

The problem of silos in organizations disturbs minds for ages. You can find a lot of thoughts about this topic on the Internet. They all have common thoughts and suggestions about overcoming the problem with silo teams. In this article I want to give one more perspective of the origin of the problem and first easy steps which could help on the way of pushing out the silo mentality.

What Internet says about the Silo Mentality?

Most of the thoughts come down to several reasons why we have isolated teams, such as people with similar expertise and goals clustered into exclusive groups. Such groups tend to think in the category “us vs. them” and take ownership of resources competitively, rather than sharing and collaborating. Such a mindset creates unnecessary competition, which delays achieving results.

It’s not always visible that you have silos. The formation of them is a natural process and with unaware management could be mimicked by employees, who do what their leadership does. Forbes analyzed and came to the conclusion that the root cause of isolated teams lay not in employees unwillingness to communicate.

When we take a deeper a look at the root cause of these issues, we find that more often than not silos are the result of a conflicted leadership team.

If you ever spotted that you’re unaware about major initiatives, information or process changes in the organization, if bottom-up communication is limited, if the principle “there are no stupid questions” sounds as an alien phrase for your environment at work, then the silo mentality might already be in your organization.

A culture of collaboration starts from the top — employees will mimic what they see in management, so it’s crucial for executives and managers to model resource- and information-sharing.

How to live Now knowing That?

At first, I would understand what is the root cause of the silo mentality problem. It might not be the fact that people are overloaded and have constant pressure of a tight delivery schedule. It might be that they don’t see demand for this from their leaders. Forbes has interesting thoughts about that (find the link to the article above). Employees mimic their leaders and the latter should lead by example.

Secondly, I would look at the origin of the problem from a bit different perspective. Every behavior has different reasons, we need to understand “Why” before making a decision about “How”. Take this perspective for an example. Some people are not communicating enough not because they don’t want to. People in the same group might have a bit of an orthogonal mindset and interests and this is enough to start communicating less. Their managers could ask them to talk and communicate more, but it will be a short term solution if the main problem is not addressed: people need to have common interests to get emotional contact. It is rather manager’s task, than employees, to create an environment which facilitates such communication.

And thirdly, I would consider the urgency and importance of activities towards pushing the silo mentality out. It’s not something which is very urgent and not related directly to delivering of features. But if you look from a different perspective, you would see that teams efficiency also depends on it. And then this is important. Such things like “important, but not urgent” require constant focus, because it could easily slip away from the scope of your daily agenda. Activities around overcoming the silo issue should be unobtrusively implemented and the sooner the better. The more the silo mentality not addressed, the more normal for your organization it becomes.

Perspective for Non-Executives

In most of articles which are attached here, authors talk about some big changes which requires tackling the problem top-down, like “the IKEA effect” or sharing company common vision and goals. If you’re not an executive, your options are much limited, but there is still a space for acting.

I’d like to give here some ideas which we have implemented in my team and which brought some results. But I admit that in your case it may not work, and at first you would need to understand “Why” you have the problem. If you decide to share your vision about that in comment, it would add a lot to this article. So here are my humble ideas.

  • Adopt a free flow of information in your team. You’ll dismiss that exclusive ownership of information. Any information which is related to common goals should be easy to obtain by demand at any moment. It may include such practice as answering questions even when you’re very busy, and not blocking other people if it’s related just to providing information. When you start practicing that, soon you’ll understand which information needs to be shared in written form, and which not.
  • Adopt the principle “there are no stupid questions”. Any person may ask about anything and get a complete answer and don’t feel uncomfortable during that. This also will increase the trust in the team and collaboration.
  • Adopt discussions and activities of people’s interests. It may be discussions on technical topics just by interests. If it’s related to work, or it’s not related to work — it doesn’t matter. The purpose of such activities is different: to do something together, which is at least a bit more interesting than tasks. It’s not easy sometimes to start doing something with people who you know only as colleagues. But give a chance to this practice and you’ll open new people and new perspectives for collaboration.
  • And last, but not the least. Consider smokers as one more silo and try to push it out as well. People who smoke tend to talk about many things. People who don’t smoke cannot stand the smell of cigarettes and this is not their habit to go “for a smoke”. In organizations where there is a majority of smokers (there are still like this) people who don’t smoke need to do additional work to get information. If this is the case for your team and you address that point, it would also be beneficial.

There are a lot of things which could be done toward pushing the silo mentality out of your organization. And you can start small, from your team and colleagues nearby. But it also important to not expect changes too quickly.

If this topic about the silo mentality and pushing it out from organization is interesting to you, check also those articles below, which all have good and bright ideas.

All opinions are my own || Software Developer, learner, perfectionist and entrepreneur-kind person, nonconformist. Always seeks for the order and completeness.