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Breaking Down Silos - 2 August 2011

Decades ago, scientists conducted an infamous experiment called Ratopolis. They placed a bunch of rats into an enclosed environment, and they let the rats breed and breed without increasing the amount of space in which they had to live. As the population grew, the enclosure became more cramped while the food became less sufficient.

Eventually, the rats went crazy. They became vicious cannibals. They attacked their partners. Instead of playing and mating, they would fight. When females gave birth, they’d eat their young.

The experiment's extraordinary video footage showed the transition from collegiality and friendliness to outright hostility and rat-war

The research contains similarities to the conflicts that occur in workplaces. When silos exist between teams and departments, there are usually five main causes:

  • Limited attention results in people competing to be heard and appreciated
  • Limited space to work and think results in people becoming protective of their turf
  • Limited information results in power plays where the winner is the know-it-all
  • Limited resources result in people hoarding and defending whatever they can get
  • Limited opportunities result in people doing whatever it takes to get ahead

In each case, there’s an insufficiency of something – whether it’s attention, space, information, resources, or opportunities – and that lack is what creates a toxic culture of one team against another. In the scientific experiment illustrated above, the rats resorted to violence over collaboration. Humans, of course, are much smarter, and if prompted by a good manager, they can become more collaborative in the workplace.

The problem, though, is that managers often implement initiatives that are about cooperation rather than collaboration. Cooperation is when people occasionally work together while pursuing different higher purposes. It is a shallow form of team-based working, and participants are usually focused on individual success rather than group dynamics.

Collaboration is more intense. It requires a group of employees working towards a shared goal. It is strategic in nature, and it involves a collective focus on producing an outcome that’s bigger than just one participant’s aspirations. Collaboration requires cooperation as a starting point, but takes it to a new level. And that new level is propelled by managers who create the right conditions for collaboration to prosper. Three of those conditions include:

  • Being aware of the five limitations listed above and actively turning them around
  • Inventing projects for two opposing silos to work on together
  • Ramping up the contact between each group’s members using a variety of methods

The existence of silos is ordinarily just a symptom that indicates there’s something more significant happening underneath the surface. It’s important to tackle it, not just when it becomes a serious issue, but as soon as you smell a rat.

 

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