Gini Dietrich

Breaking Down the Silos: Lonely vs. Functional

By: Gini Dietrich | June 5, 2012 | 

A few weeks ago, a friend told me a great story.

She said there was a new business prospect for the accounting firm where she worked. One of the partners took this prospect to lunch on Tuesday. The very next day, the prospect went to lunch with a second partner. And, on Friday, while the prospect was at lunch with the third partner, he said, “I have to say, getting three lunches out of your firm this week has been great!”

Not one of the partners knew the other was talking to this guy. And, of course, he felt no need to fess up until he was at his third lunch of the week.

Putting aside the fact that someone has time to have three lunches out in one week, the lack of communication among these three partners about something so simple is astonishing.

A few days later I saw the following comment on a blog post about the view of social business from the c-suite.

It’s sad, really, that organizations can exist today without the people inside talking to one another. That they don’t work together towards a common goal.

But silos exist in every organization – small and big, profit and non-profit, Main Street and Wall Street.

How We Got Here

One of the things Geoff Livingston and I talk about in Marketing in the Round is how we got to this point.

Early in my career, I was lured away from Fleishman-Hillard in Kansas City to help build the PR department inside an advertising agency.

This was all the rage.

Dell and WPP Group formed one marketing agency that worked on only Dell products. They consolidated 800 (!!!) agencies in order to begin to regain market share from Hewlett-Packard and to stop the turf wars over budgets, campaigns, and results.

Advertising agencies were building PR profit centers inside. PR firms were buying web and direct agencies. Everyone was singing kumbaya and getting along famously.

And then…

The dot com bubble burst, which really only affected the Silicon Valley and the firms that focused solely on technology, but the rest of us were watching.

Then the 9/11 tragedy enveloped our country, which led to an instant stock market crash and people scrambling to figure out what was coming next.

And, of course, we all know what has been going on the past three years. The Great Recession really pushed people past the point of wanting to work together. Everyone scurried back to their respective corners and went back to protecting their budgets, campaigns, and results, if only just to survive.

And suddenly we were back to siloed organizations that had three partners taking one prospect to lunch three days in one week.

The Lonely Silo

It’s pretty common to think only large organizations have silos, but start-ups and small businesses are sometimes the worst offenders.

A lonely silo exists inside these organizations because the focus is on getting things done and out the door, rather than doing things the right way (internally).

These companies are solely focused on making the customer happy in order to gain more customers. The leaders in these places are really good at their craft, but not necessarily at running a business. So they forget (or don’t know) there needs to be processes that bring together everyone to work toward one common goal.

The Functional Silo

The functional silo feels very team-like. There are brainstorm sessions and, if you’re working late, pizza is delivered and paid for by the company.

But this team doesn’t have a seat at the business strategy table. This is really indicative of what happens in a large PR firm. You have a team that works together every minute of every day on one common goal, but it’s typically around an industry or one client. It’s never for the betterment of the entire agency.

Things don’t move quickly in the functional silo because 10 different “teams” have to sign off on everything, slowing the process and creating an absurd amount of red tape.

Breaking Down the Silos

It’s now time to stop this practice, break down the silos, and work together.

It isn’t going to be easy. It’s a big culture change. And people hate change. But it can be done.

It needs to be done.

The organization of tomorrow won’t be able to sustain itself if it has any sort of silo inside. It won’t be able to react quickly to real-time customer needs, nor will it be able to integrate new technologies that are coming at as faster than any other generation has seen.

You don’t want to be that accounting firm that has three lunches with one prospect because they don’t talk to one another.

Call it social business or call it growing a business the right way. Whatever you call it, it’s time to do it.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • When I picked up my copy of Marketing in the Round on the weekend, I was excited that right from the start you are discussing the need to dismantle these silos and find ways to work together as a true team. Then I followed your advice and read some fiction…
    I thought that the silos of the corporate world were immovable- now I work in academia…wow! They are so used to keeping their work close and not sharing that I am not even sure they are aware they are in silos. Which reminds me of a little story…
    Mum always made the best turkeys.  She always cut a slice off of the top of them, and this was considered to be her secret. One day her daughter asked why she made that cut. Mum replied “that is how my mum taught me.” So the daughter approached her grandma- “Grandma why did you cut a slice off of the top of your turkey?” “That’s the way my mum taught me- let’s ask her.” So off they go to ask great grandma. “Great Grandma, why do you cut the top off of the turkey?” “Why dear, I have a small oven and they won’t fit in any other way.”
    We teach as we were taught, and sometimes we don’t even know why.  We work in silos because it has always been that way. I very much agree that change is going to have to be on a big scale- and culture change is hard to do. Especially if that culture is one of finger pointing and ass covering. 

    •  @RebeccaTodd THAT is a great story! 
      It’s not easy to create this culture change. You’ll have a lot of people stabbing you in the back. You’ll have some people who are fully supportive. But most people will sit and wait to see what happens. That’s why it’s so important the executive team be totally involved in it. It’s going to be necessary if a business wants to work with changing technologies in the future.
      P.S. What book are you reading?

      •  @ginidietrich More truth.  I can’t recall the thinker I am paraphrasing here, but I was once in an in-service discussing the process of change. There were four stages (I can only recall three) but the essence of it was first we change practice, then we see a change in results, then and only then do we see a change in belief. I agree that in order to create real change, you need a strong leader who uses a pressure and support model to bring about change.  If we wait for everyone to get on board before trying a change, it’s never going to happen. 
        I was finishing up Moore’s Island of the Sequined Love Nun. I love his work! Have to pick up Sacre Bleu. But first- Marketing in the Round! 

  • It’s good to recognize the effects of working in silos for any size business in any industry. Much like Rebecca points out, some people don’t know how else to work. The hard part is the change effort required to “break down silos,” which is easier said than done.
    Here’s my experience with silos– I worked in a mid-sized agency with marketing and PR where there were a lot of turf battles and obvious silos. Then, a new company president essentially forced employees to work in integrated teams because they had to share a budget. It was an interesting case study I used for my master’s thesis because it spoke to the very reasons why people went into their silos to begin with–money and the bottom line.
    I wish it had a happy ending, but unfortunately, that leader left and with a fractioned leadership team, I essentially witnessed almost two years of work to remove silos ruined as they were built up again! I felt like I was in a time warp because it reverted to the same organizational culture as it was when I started working there. So, unless the leadership is truly behind and has the resources to maintain a silo-less environment, it’s very easy for employees to revert back to their comfort zones.   

    •  @Krista Totally agree! The second chapter of the book talks about how to get CEO buy-in and what’s required to make it happen. Your case study is really interesting…and sad.

      •  @ginidietrich  @Krista ironically the lack of loyalty runs from top to bottom now that the perks that keep people at companies don’t exist anymore. Since everyone knows tomorrow they can be fired it is a what is in it for me today because tomorrow I could be in a new job or looking for one. This is a major structural shift of american businesses and the workers compact since the war on unions and benefits began under reagan.

  • smmanley

    I would like to say that it is part of “Strategic Ambiguity” but you are right–there is nothing strategic about it.  It is lack of communication, which is frustrating for the employees AND the customer as there is no unifying strategy that everyone gets behind.  It is like moving furniture–if everyone lifting the couch tries to move it at different times, the couch will never move, but by working together, the moving gets done!

    •  @smmanley THAT is a great analogy! I wish we’d used it in the book. Everyone knows how frustrating it is to move a piece of furniture if everyone moving it isn’t communicating.

  • We need to get over our small thinking and think of the big picture of what’s best for the business as a whole. I think we will see a lot of companies make half-hearted efforts to make it look as if they are tearing down silos, but in all actuality, they will still maintain at least some walls, perhaps with barbed wire at the top. 

    •  @KenMueller It’s because it’s hard, right? We’re advocating even breaking down the hierarchical organizational structure. It’s definitely a culture change.

      •  @ginidietrich Across the board. It’s inherent in who we are. Me Me Me Me. And of course much of marketing and advertising feeds into that desire, so it perpetuates.

        •  @KenMueller Totally true. We’re selfish beings.

        •  @ginidietrich  @KenMueller like that time at Blog Camp Gini would share her potato chips. Totally selfish. She had plenty. In fact a whole bag. But she made us watch her eat one chip after another until the bag was done. Typical CEO.

        •  @ginidietrich  @KenMueller like that time at Blog Camp Gini wouldnt share her potato chips. Totally selfish. She had plenty. In fact a whole bag. But she made us watch her eat one chip after another until the bag was done. Typical CEO.

        •  @HowieSPM  @KenMueller I’m the oldest of six. I had to share EVERYTHING growing up. I no longer share.

  • Until businesses offer every employee ownership stakes in either profit sharing (that isn’t gamed in favor of management like most ESOPs are), real stock, or realistic stock options silos will never be broken down internally. The drive of every employee is to maximize their pay not maximize profits or shareholder value. That must be connected to every employee or they really won’t care.
    The problem is most employees are viewed on the cost side of the balance sheet vs the asset side at I would say 96.748% of all businesses. Could you imagine the stock clerk at Walmart connecting with the COO about some insight from the floor that might translate to company wide increase in sales when the clerk makes minimum wage and has no healthcare? That clerk will tell their friends and family how stupid management is for not seeing this glaring opportunity. But if they knew they would make more money for this of course they would.
    I worked at an ESOP that for a long time seemed genuine. We even gave each other grief for wasting paper clips. problem is we had no way to know if upper management got paid big bonuses that didn’t show up in the profit sharing statement. and then when things went bad you weren’t allowed to sell your stock so all that nice money they dumped into your retirement account? Gone. They held it for 5 years then made you take 5 payments. I would of done better investing in the slots in vegas from my 7 years of work. There were lawsuits and the judge favored the employees but we got no money just a change in how the ESOP was managed.
    So this needs to be genuine where workers all have a stake and know what they get for working together. Then you will see a difference. Until then….there is no such thing as a social business or silos breaking down.

    •  @HowieSPM I agree…and that’s what we talk about in the book. There has to be CEO buy-in and creating the culture change is incentivized. We did this with one client. It took us four years, but we did it. And the company tripled in growth last year…all due to breaking down the silos.

  • rustyspeidel

    I was going to say that I 100% agree with what you are suggesting, but I think in order for this to work, the CEO has to drive it. That tells me it’s the new startups and small businesses with powerful leaders who will lead this charge. I don’t see Exxon or Microsoft or IBM getting anywhere near this in the next decade, sadly.  Howie’s right–without strong financial incentives, no one will take risks at work. Not when it takes 9-12 months to find a new gig. 
     @ginidietrich  I’m interested–in your travels, who has been the most receptive to these excellent ideas? Larger or smaller? 

    •  @rustyspeidel  @ginidietrich shhhh Rusty don’t tell anyone this stuff. There are agencies making bank selling this idea to clients right now. They will be mad if they are discovered to be not quite honest at least until the results don’t prove out.
      I remember when Intranets were the social business solution in the late 90’s. Connect everyone.

    •  @rustyspeidel It’s almost as if you’ve read the book. I couldn’t fit four chapters into one blog post, but yes…

    •  @rustyspeidel  @ginidietrich Top down is soooo important.

  • PaulSchooss


  •  @ginidietrich You remind me of Reagan’s speech to Gorbachev  “Tear Down This Wall”  [No political affiliation intended, just one leader speaking to other leaders ;)]  Let the people coexist.

    •  @annelizhannan He was a smart, smart man!

      •  @ginidietrich And the real quality of a leader (CEO) is surrounding himself with smart people…not afraid of those smarter than he (she). [this is a plug for your staff ;)]

        •  @annelizhannan That was a really hard personal lesson for me. I thought I had to have all the answers. 

  • John_Trader1

    Do you think its possible to phone Mikhail Gorbachev and have him spearhead the effort to break down these silos? We can call it “Glasnost & Perestroika: Part II” and revive his concept of openness and transparency. We could all learn a little bit about his philosophy, goals and tactics to achieve what he envisioned for a post Cold War soviet Union to help us break down our own silos.
    I can tell you that my experience in working with international partners all over the globe has taught me that a vast majority of them have no silos to hold them back and they pride themselves on working together as a team on common goals with transparent and open channels of communication. It’s so stark in the way they act, how I can talk to anyone on a sales, technical or marketing team and get the very same answer. We really are paralyzing ourselves with siloing. I just hope that we can indeed push ourselves to break down the walls.

    •  @John_Trader1 That, Mr. Trader, is fascinating! So it’s really an American thing? Not a human being thing?

      • John_Trader1

         @ginidietrich From what I have seen, especially in the Middle East and Asia, the culture is more ingrained to work together as a team instead of working for individualistic reasons. I can’t say that this mentality is a blanket statement for everyone outside the U.S. because I have had some occasional experiences with international partners that are a bit siloed but perhaps the problem is systemic in our culture because we are leaders, not followers. Meaning, other nations and entities know they need to incorporate the cultural aspects that make them a more cohesive unit outside of work into their business acumen. Many often look at their co-workers as their family too.  
        I’ve always been a little perplexed at some Americans that will practice one walk of life outside of the office where they are open, communicate, and share all for the common good and then they step into the office and the walls go up. We seem to have a harder time meshing the non-siloed mentality outside of work (if it indeed exists) with our life on the other side of the office door. 

        •  @John_Trader1 That is perplexing to me, too. In fact, when I speak I say to people, “Do you go up to a person at a networking event and talk about your products and why they should buy? No? Then why do you do that online?” It really makes me wonder sometimes.

        •  @ginidietrich  @John_Trader1 Excellent point John!  Dr. Geert Hofstede ranks countries based on many dimensions, one of which is is individualism vs collectivism.  The States has a very high Individualistic ranking (91). Which is even high to me, a Canadian (ours is 80).  When I follow US news, business or cultural, I really get a sense that “looking out for number 1” is your motto. I know that there is a lot to be gained from this as well, but I feel that this culture has helped give rise to these rigid silos in organizations. 

        • John_Trader1

           @RebeccaTodd  @ginidietrich Thank you for sharing that data Rebecca, it’s fascinating stuff. I didn’t know about Dr. Hofstede’s work, but it’s good to know that there is scientific evidence to back up my assertions based on observations.

  • Lured? Hey little girl, do you want to see my puppy? Ok, that was a little too creepy but it’s all I could come up with. 
    We face that challenge every day. We have ‘producers’ who are territorial and protect their turf and we have different specialties w/in the agency who do their own thing and don’t know who is doing what at times, hence the 3 lunch invitations. 
    Good stuff, I guess I better finish reading your book, huh? 

    •  @bdorman264 Couldn’t you offer candy? I love candy. 
      You’d better finish reading my book and then get those guys to work together. Wouldn’t it make you mad to pay for three lunches with the same guy?

  • rdopping

    Hey Gini.
    I don’t want to brag but the firm I work in has been successful in breaking down theses barriers. I an a cog in the wheel but experience thus regularly.

    If you want some insight from the Architecture industry I would be happy to offer it. Maybe I just need t read your book first.

    Our firm is national in Canada and is about 500 employees now so silo challenges are real. Anyway, great piece. Very insightful. 😉

  • I entered the work force in 2008 and I’ve known nothing but silos which I still find frustrating and strange. I came from a college environment where working together and bringing each of our skills to the table was so important (especially in my digital video major…I mean you can’t run the camera, the lights, read the script etc. by yourself) and then had to figure out why people not only hoarded cats, bunnies and food but now they were hoarding things at work. It took me awhile to understand it, I get it now but I also know it doesn’t work, it just seems to work for the time being. 
    I’m looking forward to reading your book ASAP. It’s on my summer list!

    •  @rachaelseda It really doesn’t make sense to me. I think most of it is driven by two things: The way things have always been done and people not wanting to work with others. It’s evident in cliques in high school and then just evolves. It’s sad.

      •  @ginidietrich My Mom did always tell me that the people who are “clique-ish”, mean, dramatic etc in high school typically will always be that way even as adults. It’s unfortunate. 

  • margieclayman

    What a fantastic example – calculate the cost of each of those lunches (probably no small sum…I know how business people eat, yo). Now imagine instead of three lunches it’s three different marketing campaigns, three different efforts to create a new product or service. Woo boy. Your head starts to spin at the amount of money that is being wasted in those scenarios. 
    You’d think the concept of wasting money would be enough to get peoples’ attention, but for all of the talk about the recession, people still seem to have a real “what will be will be” attitude towards their company’s financial future. Got me scratching my head, that’s for sure.

    •  @margieclayman I know, as a business owner, I’d be furious to receive those expense reports. I just can’t imagine. But it happens. All the time.

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