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Breaking Down Silos and Coordinating across Departments

Organizational structures have long been set up with silos to create specialization and focus. Although this worked well in the 20th century with managers concentrating on their own stovepipe and rarely looking up, down, or across the company, this will no longer work in today’s fast-paced, information- and consumer-driven economy.

Companies need to get away from the silo mentality because coordination across departments is where the greatest opportunities lie to create efficiency, drive change, incorporate sustainability, and harness the power and ideas of all of your employees.

Most large companies still work with siloed departments, in that each one has little to no idea what another is doing. Someone might be driving the sustainability program in one department, but other groups like marketing, public relations, philanthropy, sales, business development, R & D, operations, logistics, and community relations might be implementing their own efforts, usually without communicating with each other, and rarely aligned.

This typically happens because people are evaluated and incentivized by what they do for their boss and within their department, not for how they help the company’s overall efficiency, productivity, or success. Therefore, five things have to occur to help break down silos and increase collaboration around sustainability:

  1. Ensure that information flows across, up and down, and within departments.
  2. Priorities need to be aligned—the company versus the department.
  3. Decision making should be coordinated across silos.
  4. Create a team that looks across the company. They should be skilled leaders with credibility to identify opportunities and drive change, including key people who could block things later.
  5. Find examples in the past—whether they be a product, process, or service—where cooperation between departments led to success, and build off those instances.

The goal in breaking down silos is not to destroy a department’s autonomy, but rather to eliminate the issues that caused conflicting priorities, lack of information flow, and duplication of efforts and resources.

How many times have you come up with an idea at your company, only to find out that another branch or department is working on the same thing? At one point when Kodak was trying to get into the digital camera market, it had seven separate initiatives taking place across the company.

Let me give you two examples that illustrate two different siloed approaches: first, where silos were plain as day and led to inefficiency and a lesser work product, and second, where sustainability was used as a means of breaking down the barriers between various silos and a new process was developed that led to a new product and a new revenue stream.

The first scenario was with a utility company. We had been working with their green team on a variety of issues over the course of a year, and it got to the point where the team decided that it wanted to create a CSR report. Then after weeks of working with the team and talking through the best stories to share, we drafted the beginnings of a C-Level GRI report. But about six weeks in, a communications person joined the conversation and blurted out in frustration: “I don’t know why we keep talking about this; we have an environmental report at the printer right now. My department has been working on this for months!”

We were all dumbstruck. Nobody on this fairly high-level green team knew that this was already in the works. In addition, after reading the report, we all found it full of fluff and it seemed that it was likely to do more harm than good. The siloed approach of this company’s communication department wasted energy and resources of all those involved. It resulted in the group feeling burned by the process, and it made them less inclined to help the next time around.

What you want to do is use sustainability to break down silos. Take, for example, the second scenario with Cascade Designs, the maker of the popular Therm-a-Rest mattress. It was looking for ways to reduce its waste costs associated with the disposal of excess foam from its mattresses. In a traditional siloed organization maybe the manufacturing, facilities, or designers would have tried to come up with a solution on their own that could reduce waste disposal costs. However, what Cascade did was bring together a cross-functional team to look at this issue, and they found that the excess foam could be used as the raw material for new camping pillows, something that its customers had been requesting. So they took what was waste and turned it into the raw materials for a new product, thus reducing waste costs and increasing top-line revenues at the same time. It took what was an expense and turned it into productive revenue on the income statement, all while meeting customer expectations and lowering their environmental impact.

This is an example where sustainability can turn what was once thought of as business as usual onto its head, inviting innovation, collaboration, and excitement into any organization as long as the people are willing to adopt a new way of thinking. This can make any type of change initiative feel more empowering and less daunting.

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