Exposing the silo effect

The image reads: “Nope, free range won’t work. They’re happier in separate pens where they can blame each other when things go wrong.” 

Do you ever feel like this? 

My association recently launched an innovative, 18-month virtual education course for members interested in personal growth, interdisciplinary team development and organizational quality improvement. During our initial, face-to-face program we use this cartoon to introduce the topic of team development. Generally, this slide reminds participants why the silo method is not a valid leadership style. 

Unfortunately, not everyone’s attended this training. As an education director for a small trade association, I can honestly say there are days when educating our members fails to be a team sport. Nevertheless, learning continues to be a core competency of our mission, a valuable member benefit and a primary revenue source. 

Most meeting professionals would agree that two education staff cannot pull off an annual convention and expo for more than 800 professionals and more than 450 vendor representatives without help. Assistance is needed to register attendees, support speakers, test audio/visual equipment, monitor education sessions, direct banquet staff and countless other details. 

The same can be said for other significant functions of an association, including government relations, communications and membership. When departments aren’t willing to collaborate and support one another, the silo effect causes a number of damaging outcomes:    

  1. The association unintentionally competes with itself for member time, interest and resources.
  2. Staff efforts are duplicated (or, worse yet, are in conflict with one another), causing individual projects to become diluted and less financially sound.
  3. Staff members are neither efficient nor effective, and those who consistently perform despite the adverse work environment become overwhelmed, frustrated and burned out.
  4. The “blame game” further impacts morale; places a disproportionate emphasis on failed ideas; and ultimately discourages innovation.
  5. The association’s image and reputation are potentially harmed.

So, my question to you is this: Do you know an association that subscribes to the silo method? What’s the best way to expose this unhealthy and unproductive management style? What solutions do you offer for those who currently find themselves operating within this type of work environment?

4 Responses to “Exposing the silo effect”

  1. January 27, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    I’ve been frustrated with the silo syndrome as well. An association staff can personally get along great, and even socialize together, and still fall into the silo trap. I’ve often wondered how to break that pattern. Perhaps an association-wide effort (modeled by the CSE) to keep all staff informed about what everyone else is doing and why it matters — it’s amazing how that’s assumed to happen but really doesn’t. Work on making it part of the association culture that communication is open and learning is encouraged — everyone knows what’s going on, what’s important, what’s happening, what’s hot. Why should staff be interested in other departments if no one cares enough to inform them?

    Create opportunities for staff from different departments (at all levels) to work together on meaningful projects or brainstorm/discuss issues and challenges. Not meetings for meetings sake but creative meaningful gatherings. Are there systems in place that discourage cooperation — budgetary, administrative? Are there personalities (in senior positions) that model anti-cooperative behavior, guarding territory, budget and staff, ignoring or disparaging other departments? Their direct reports will follow their example — I’ve seen this.

    Social media may help break down these silos since it offers an opportunity for many departments to work together on common goals and encourages open communication between staff and members. Perhaps one of the reasons many associations are struggling to get their legs with social media is because their culture is still stuck in silo and control mode. Lots to think about here, Aaron!

  2. January 28, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    Other than what I wrote about this topic in my recent article for Associations Now, I think smaller organizations in particular have no excuse for unnecessary silos if they change the way work is distributed, feedback is offered, and results are achieved.

    My first association experience has tainted me forever, but we were a small staff (anywhere from 6-12 depending on the time) and we had a shared understanding that being “in charge” of something by virtue of your title really meant you were the point person who lead the staff ot collaboratively serving members in that area. The amount of involvement from other staff depended on the nature of the specific effort, but things like annual involved everyone.

    Our daily 30-minute all-staff meetings reinforced this collaborative model as did other ways of doing our work each other: all major communications/publications had to be routed through all staff before final printing, some responsibilities rotated among staff annually so no one “owned” them permanently, etc. Changing the way the work gets done begins to change the mindset people bring to doing the work and it quickly becomes a self-reinforcing loop. Right now our loops self-reinforce the silo mentality in too many cases.

  3. February 3, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Deirdre and Jeffrey:

    Thanks for your comments. Indeed, you’ve given us much to think about. I personally know of several association professionals who have read and forwarded this discussion on to their coworkers as a first step toward exposing the silo effect within their own work environments. It’s a huge issue out there.

    Undoubtedly, I agree that a cooperative approach to achieving association initiatives should be modeled by the CSE and that staff at all levels should be encouraged to regularly collaborate with their coworkers on assignments; however, I think we’d agree this is often easier said than done.

    In my opinion, more work should be done to promote clear and consistent communication among staff, as well as to reward instances of shared learning. Ultimately, as these practices become second nature, staff will work collaboratively, feedback will become vital and results will be celebrated as a team.


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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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