digital Transformation

Breaking down silos: digital transformation’s greatest myth

‘Breaking down silos’ is certainly digital transformation’s most common phrase and myth. If you haven’t heard this phrase repeated over and over again, chances are your government hasn’t let you out of your house after the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s probably the biggest fable about transformation projects, be they digital or not. Some time ago, I delivered a presentation about the necessary cooperation between marketing and CIOs, which triggered an interesting piece in France’s leading economic newspaper, Les Echos. In this piece, the journalist reported that I was advocating the implementation of organisational silos to achieve better results. Obviously, he had completely misunderstood what I had said, unless I hadn’t made my point clearly enough. What I meant was that organisational silos couldn’t be broken down, that most of the time it served no purpose to even try and I further explained that intrapreneurship provides an interesting answer to this digital transformation dilemma. To top it all, it does produce far better results. 

Why Breaking down silos is digital transformation’s greatest myth and how to overcome it

Breaking down silos: the greatest myth of digital transformation
Breaking down organisational silos. An old pipe dream. At the same time, silos are a ready-made excuse for those failing in their digital transformation endeavours – image produced with Midjourney.

My presentation was highlighting that there is no point in breaking down silos to facilitate digital transformation. It can even be counterproductive.

What I meant above all is that organisational silos are neither good nor bad. There are both good and bad things in them. 

Silo-breaking is a great subject for after office hours pub discussions, that’s all. One had rather embrace intrapreneurship. Here is why.

Breaking Down Organisational Silos: The Biggest Myth in Digital Transformation

Breaking down organisational silos: the myth of digital transformation
Intrapreneurs are like scrum halves in Rugby Union. There are short players but fast and agile. Intrapreneurs do not even attempt to break down silos, because they are too busy leading the pack and have no time to waste. Image by antimuseum.com

Organisational silos are neither good nor bad

There’s no point raging against organisational silos, it’s a waste of time.

Let’s wonder why they exist. Organisational silos are created, or even recreate themselves, naturally, to protect business units’ ivory towers. That much is understood. Yet, if they are ever reappearing this is because they are the easiest way to do and manage business. They also make measuring and reporting on results far simpler.

Now, I did witness business owners explain that matrix management was more effective and I spent months on end trying to map such complex organisations inside information systems. The sad truth is, though that it’s not true at all.

More complexity in an organisation leads to more tensions, limited measurability and poorer results. Incidentally, it also leads to more expensive and malfunctioning information systems.

Breaking silos
Breaking down organisational silos is easier said and depicted with Midjourney than done in real life

Besides, you cannot force people to collaborate just by throwing a matrix organisation chart at them. Working across departments happens naturally and effortlessly … provided that all parties reap a clear benefit from a cooperative endeavour.

Matrix organisations and work efficiency

Anyone who has worked within matrix organisations knows how inefficient and inflexible they are.

As a young project manager, I spent months on end mapping sales and marketing processes for the design and implementation of CRM systems.

When everyone reports to everyone else and everyone works with everyone else, achieving satisfying results and measuring them aren’t a piece of cake. Besides, efficiency gains aren’t necessarily as good as you might hope. There are some exceptions, but they’re few and far between.

That’s why, whether you like it or not, organisational silos are here to stay. You’d better get used to them, they will not go any time soon.

No organisation is perfect

In fact, anyone who has studied organisations in the context of innovation knows that no organisation is perfect, and that no type of organisation solves the difficult question of innovation within a company.

The key to achieving the difficult balance between creativity and process efficiency lies not in organisational charts, but in people, their skills and the leadership that fosters – or fails to foster – innovation.

Cross-functional innovation work can and must gain a foothold across organisational silos

That said, cross-functional work, is a prerequisite for innovation. To thrive, it must gain a foothold across these different silos, circumventing all the issues related to those organisational silos.

While I highlighted the above-mentioned benefits of silos (to some), I do not intend to glorify silo-based organisations either. What this really means is that it is not necessary to ‘break down’ silos, nor business units, let alone get rid of the people who work within them in order to innovate.

This is what I describe as the ‘scrum-half’ approach. For those who are not familiar with the game of Rugby Union, a scrum-half is a comparatively shorter player but faster and more agile than the rest. More often than not he (or she) is the one distributing the ball here and there and organising the attack. He or she isn’t the biggest or the heaviest, by far, but is certainly the smartest and fastest runner.

I should know, I once was one of them.

Intrapreneurs really know how to ‘break down’ silos

This is where intrapreneurs come in. It’s not a typo, an intrapreneur is a person, or group of people, who manages to innovate in an entrepreneurial way within a (usually large) organisation.

To succeed, intrapreneurs do not give a damn about organisation models. Organisational charts may change from day to day, or more often than not disappear altogether. I’ve seen it happen ever so often. Organisations change so quickly that no one can keep up with the changes and by the time the chart has been updated a new change in management occurs.

Intrapreneur Overlook Organisation Structures

Do not misunderstand me, intrapreneurs are no anarchists nor seek to overthrow the powers that be even though some people may think so. They do not care about organisation structures because it doesn’t matter.

I’ve almost always found it laughable. While many of my colleagues were waiting for, as they said, ‘someone to clear out the organisation’, I’ve always found that these moments of uncertainty are most favourable to change management (read this piece about my change management tips).

Four main organisational models for innovation but none of them is good

breaking silos
Even when you’ve broken down silos, your projects do not always cut the mustard. Above are the four most common types of organisation for innovation. In 2010, Paris-based consulting firm CCA demonstrated that none of these organisations is good or bad. All that matters is leadership and implementation. Results are not impacted by these models in any way, they found.

The only thing that matters for innovation – and digital transformation for that matter – is the quality of the people working for an organisation.

Scrum-half way, agile intrapreneurs who are bound to work across silos, move quickly and circumvent issues others had found unsolvable.

Intrapreneurs fight against no one, they just get things done

True intrapreneurs aren’t fighters. They have no enemies. Their only foe is status quo. They even grow a stiff upper lip in front of resilience to change.

To do this, he or she will solely rely on people’s skills, let self-organisation take place. Based on the results, he or she might end up structuring his or her project organisation. It’s not even necessary. Most of the time, structuring innovation takes place later at management’s request, who often lean on the above-mentioned innovator/intrapreneur to do so.

the innovator doesn't ask please, he asks forgiveness (David Armano)
Breaking down silos? The innovator doesn’t ask please, he asks forgiveness (David Armano)

In conclusion, intrapreneurs never beg for help, they never ask where they fit in the organisation nor whether they have been given the right ‘job description”.

On the contrary, intrapreneurs get things done and later seek what change agents might be able to give them a hand.

A word of caution: I do not mean that innovation cannot come from above. It is entirely possible, and it often does.

Yet, even in that case, innovation requires intrepreneurship in the exact same way. Even if you have support from the top, be humble and work like intrapreneurs, because that’s the way to make innovation succeed. By definition, innovation is about getting things done differently. Hence, this is no surprise that you are bound to upset a few people down that route.

We also recommend that you read our nine top tips for intrapreneurship and change management.

Yann Gourvennec
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Yann Gourvennec

Yann Gourvennec created visionarymarketing.com in 1996. He is a speaker and author of 6 books. In 2014 he went from intrapreneur to entrepreneur, when he created his digital marketing agency. ———————————————————— Yann Gourvennec a créé visionarymarketing.com en 1996. Il est conférencier et auteur de 6 livres. En 2014, il est passé d'intrapreneur à entrepreneur en créant son agence de marketing numérique. More »

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