Breaking Functional Silos

From Software Development to Surgery

Maya Ber Lerner
5 min readSep 2, 2021
Photo by Bilal O.

“The word “silo” does not just refer to a physical structure or organization (such as a department). It can also be a state of mind. Silos exist in structures. But they exist in our minds and social groups too. Silos breed tribalism. But they can also go hand in hand with tunnel vision.”
Gillian Tett, The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers

Software development silos

When I started working in software, the hostility between software developers and QA (software testers) was obvious, but no one thought we could actually fight these silos.

Developers built the product.

QA pointed out all the developer’s mistakes.

It made perfect sense that these two tribes don’t get along.

Working against the shared goal

Looking at the big picture, developers and QA should theoretically share a goal: deliver value to customers, faster and better than the competition. However, looking at the big picture is rarely done on a daily basis. So each group focused on getting its work done, which sometimes conflicted with the other group’s agenda.

These silos were hardened by a different incentive system between groups, especially in bigger organizations. The managers of each group were focused on local goals: developers were incentivized to build as fast as possible. The QA group was measured by the number of software bugs it found.

With such different goals, communicating and sharing information freely between developers and QA was rarely the straightforward way to get things done. And it was actually easier to meet each group’s goals if they both ignored the customers..

The painful truth of silos in software is perhaps best depicted in this type of geeky humor (this is just one version):

It took decades to realize that these silos are a problem, and not “the natural way of things”. Today it is widely acknowledged that silos in software development are an obstacle. Getting rid of them remains a challenge that some companies tackle better than others.

Silos in surgery

The software industry is obsessed with breaking silos, but silos are not unique to this industry. Communication problems are everywhere.

Surgery is also a cross-functional team sport. Each surgical case requires the collaboration of a long list of highly interdependent professionals: surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, scrub techs, assistants, fellows, residents, equipment vendors, office admins, scheduling coordinators, supply chain people. And then there’s the patient.

It has been demonstrated in numerous studies that a well-coordinated surgical team is critical for ensuring patient safety. It is also common sense. Everyone involved should theoretically share a goal of a successful, safe and efficient surgery.

But if you talk to surgical teams (I’ve been doing that in the past year), you will find that these teams suffer from the same silo effect. They form rigid groups based on their roles. The groups have different workflows, different goals, and different incentives. Each group tries to achieve its separate goals, and sometimes the goals conflict.

One example is surgeon preference cards. Surgeon-specific preference cards are used to help prepare supplies in advance, based on the type of surgery. The surgeons are responsible for the outcome of surgery, and naturally prefer redundant supply over operating without or waiting on a needed item. With time, more and more items are added to the preference cards, a phenomenon known as “preference card creep”. This means preference cards often include many irrelevant items for a specific case. The nurses, who prepare for the case, are often measured on items that they open. They know that the preference cards rarely reflect the needed items. They can decide if they try to get the information from the surgeons before each surgery, harass them with questions (how could these questions be needed, when we have a preference card!), or make a decision on their own. This is a frequent source of frustration, errors and waste.

Not surprisingly, many think that this is the natural way of things, an unnecessary evil that cannot be avoided.

Silos in surgery

The “Silo Effect”

In her book The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers, Gillian Tett shares tales of the “silo syndrome” at Bloomberg’s City Hall in New York, the Bank of England in London, Cleveland Clinic hospital in Ohio, UBS bank in Switzerland, Facebook in San Francisco, Sony in Tokyo, the BlueMountain hedge fund, and the Chicago police.

She shows how the walls between groups end up with “bright people making dumb decisions”.

Reducing the silo effect

It’s probably impossible to completely eliminate silos. Tett talks about silos being inherent to the human condition. Groups and functional units make people feel that they belong and help focus on shared objectives. The problem starts when these groups become one dimensional and hardened.

So how do you reduce the effect of silos?

1. Create communication channels

Encouraging a continuous information flow and trust between groups is a critical factor. Silos are created when people don’t share information. Encouraging information flow can be done in different ways:

  • There are space design examples, like that of a hospital that created a joint lounge area for neurological and cardiac intervention specialties, which resulted in synergies that could not have been achieved otherwise.
  • Providing opportunities for professionals from different groups to meet is also a good way to move information around. Multidisciplinary conferences and HRO (High Reliability Organization) meetings force representatives of different groups to mix and share knowledge.
  • Technology is increasingly harnessed to eliminate silos, with collaboration platforms that make cross-functional communication smoother, and help share collected data between groups.

2. Define goals that promote collaboration

Reviewing the objectives of different functional groups and how they are incentivized is essential. The right metrics can encourage groups to collaborate and share information. Conflicting local metrics can make groups avoid sharing information and get hostile, inducing a “the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing” feeling. This requires systems thinking and seeing the big picture of how the different groups interact with each other.

Top down or bottom up?

Should fighting silos be a bottom-up or a top-down effort? The answer is probably both. It’s impossible for leaders to drive such culture change by demanding silos to be broken. But it’s also very difficult to drive culture change without executive sponsorship.


How do you break silos? Would love to hear about your experience.