Breaking Functional Silos

From Software Development to Surgery

Photo by Bilal O.

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.

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.

Silos in surgery

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

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.

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.

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:

  • 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.

Co-founder and CEO @Chiefyteam @MayaBerLerner |