Seeing Out of the Silo

Posted March 14, 2014 by Lindsay Bosch in On the Ladder


Starting out in your career it can be hard to tell what issues are unique to your workplace, and what problems are ubiquitous, effecting everyone at every workplace, ever.  In my first full time job, my colleagues and I spent a lot of time chatting about how isolated our department was.  A small division of a larger department, itself part of a larger institution, my four person team would go days, sometimes weeks without meeting with or speaking to anyone else in the company.  We complained that our work was little recognized or understood by the larger organization. We were a unique resource, we told ourselves, and one that didn’t really fit within the larger organizational structure….

Than I got another job, and my seven-person team spoke often about how we operated largely independently.  The organization, at times, did not understand our hard work or what we were actually accomplishing within our office.  We chatted about how our department was a bit cut off from the mechanisms of the institution.  “We’re on our own!” we told ourselves.  I was incredibly proud of all that my department achieved; yet I found there was little opportunity, or true need to meet with any colleagues outside the department.

Then I got another job, at an entirely different company.  My fourteeen-person team was quick to explain to me that we were unique in the organization.  “We don’t really operate like the rest of the company,” it was explained.  “We’re kind of on our own. We get a lot done, and sometimes its hard to fit in with the bigger structure.” The department, it was pointed out, really operated like an independent business.  We could go months without needing to speak to any of our external colleagues.

I realize this perception of “uniqueness,” seems just to be the natural state of things.  We work in silos.  Its our nature to be loyal to our immediate colleagues, our specific work and our ever-present departmental goals.  CEOs and boards devote countless hours to the issue. (See Forbes: The Silo Mentality: How to Break Down Barriers) Its obviously bad for the strategic direction of companies to have departments that are only focused internally without recognizing coherence or loyalty to the larger vision.

However, it’s also bad for us.  We limit our options for learning, networking and career growth when we focus exclusively within our existing departments.  Knowing about the work of other departments, and our colleagues who work in them, can lead to fruitful collaborations, consolidation of resources, and expanded promotional opportunities.  As our existing work silos are not going to break down any time soon, we have to make it a goal to reach out on our own.

  • Volunteer for cross-departmental committees: Beautification committees, technology development committees, compliance committees…. Look for opportunities that may come up for cross-departmental service.  I know this work can seem to be a major time suck. (Our departmental deadlines aren’t going to disappear while we are working on the All-Company Christmas Party Committee.)  These opportunities can provide a great chance to work with, and get to know colleagues outside our silo.
  • Show up to parties, all staff meetings, training events:  Though the full company picnic might be a drag, and you’ve had all the HR training you can handle, these cross-departmental events offer ample opportunity to meet new coworkers.
  • Host an open house in your department: This doesn’t have to be formal.  When you bring doughnuts and send around the email letting your colleagues know…invite the department down the hall.  Maybe they’ll do the same next Friday.
  • Invite people to coffee: This is the simplest (and my favorite) tactic. In 2014 I am aiming to have one coffee a week with a new colleague outside my department.  Use the internal directory – find someone who you’d like to meet, whose work you are interested in, or who would like to learn more about.  Reach out…Its not a job interview, a sales pitch, or even an informational interview.  There is value in just making a connection, having a conversation, and building a small window in the walls of your silo.


About the Author

Lindsay Bosch

Lindsay Bosch is an arts and nonprofit manager who has worked in cultural institutions for over decade including the American Library Association, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Film Festival. Lindsay is interested in the self-driven (and often self taught) trajectory of women’s careers in nonprofits and writes about issues related to leadership, branding and work culture. Lindsay holds a Bachelors degree in Film and Media from Northwestern Univ. and a Masters in Art History, Theory and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the coauthor of the art history textbook Icons of Beauty: Art, Culture and the Image of Women.