Don’t let silos get you down

Executives might complain about them, but silos go back a long way. The Greeks used them to store grain as early as the late eighth century BC, although credit for the first modern tower silo goes to Fred Hatch, an American farmer who claimed the invention in 1873. Silos entered management jargon in earnest with the emergence of new, disruptive technologies and increasing complexity arising from bigger corporations and more globally dispersed operations and alliances. Once lauded for their protective qualities (in information as well as grain), silos are now seen as the enemy of collaboration, yet they are allowed to survive and flourish in many organisations. According to Mitch Ditkoff, co-founder of Idea Champions, they are a key reason most corporate innovation efforts fail. “Many organisations are launching all kinds of ‘innovation initiatives’, hoping to stir the creative soup,” Ditkoff says. “This is commendable. But it is also, all too often, a disappointing experience.” Even Procter & Gamble, a company often cited as an innovation role model, struggled with the cultural implications of a genuinely open idea flow. “Until very recently, P&G was deeply centralised and internally focused,” P&G executives, Larry Huston and Nabil Sakkab, reflected in 2006. “For connect and develop to work, we’ve had to nurture an internal culture change while developing systems for making connections. And that has involved not only opening the company’s floodgates to ideas from the outside but actively promoting internal ideas exchanges as well.” It’s one of the reasons innovation flourishes in startups and smaller organisations, says open innovation consultant and author, Stefan Lindegaard. “Large corporations, with their abundance of silos and bureaucratic levels, often require considerable time to make decisions,” Lindegaard says. “Analysis paralysis is not uncommon, with decisions that seem simple to an outsider taking ages to make.” To counter the silo effect, growing numbers of big corporations are developing “ambassadors” or “idea scouts/connectors” to breach silo walls, strengthen influential networks and create momentum for change. As researcher Eoin Whelan and his colleagues found, such explicit strategies are essential to ensure sustainable innovation. “Promising ideas will not mature into innovative outcomes,” they say, “unless they reach the parts of the employee network that have the expertise and influence to exploit them.”

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