Collaboration Collapse: Why Eliminating Silos Is a Bad Idea

Conventional business wisdom tells us to crush our silos and pursue collaboration whenever we can. Here's what can happen if we do that.


Let it be known: I love collaboration. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time studying it, and I've written about it for Harvard Business Review, The Guardian, and Newsweek. I believe the future of work depends on it, and that collaboration is the heartbeat of social impact in our increasingly globalized economy.

These beliefs grew because I've had the privilege to travel all over the world to see collaboration work in a variety of ways. I saw it happen among grassroots nonprofits in Ethiopia and international philanthropic consulting firms; among Oxford researchers and global health activists in Bangladesh; among union representatives and striking nurses in Pennsylvania; and, most recently, I saw how collaboration among community leaders in refugee camps throughout Myanmar is truly a matter of life or death.

But I didn’t just see and study collaboration, I’ve been part of it. Over the span of 9 years as an educator, I generally advocated for and participated in community, departmental, and student collaboration whenever I could—most fervently in the last few years, guided by the light of evidence suggesting that students today have 40% less empathy than those of a few generations ago (and our readers know how much I dig empathy).

While my studies, travels, and experiences have shown me much of collaboration's brilliance, they've also routinely exposed collaboration's most obvious flaw: too much of it is a pretty terrible thing.

And we're all guilty of doing it.

I believe many organizations have reached collaboration collapse, a saturation point whereby our obsession to collaborate has blinded us in such a way that we’ll pursue it even if doing so is counterproductive. The rosy picture of collaboration we've bought into, that in modern business it's "next to godliness," has enabled us to cast aside the stark reality: collaboration is one crucial element for us to work better together. One of them.

Working in silos, concentrated periods of deep work in a vacuum by individuals or small teams, is another one of them.

So a company that culls all of its silos and stacks on the collaboration will eventually come crashing down, perhaps in unexpected ways.

Yet that’s precisely what so many companies are told to do.

A Google search for "eliminate silos" brings up 11,000 results, the top post being a Forbes article titled Breaking Down Silos, in which the author states:

Silos can occur in global corporations or start-up ventures with 15 employees. And no matter the size, they are detrimental to an organization’s ability to succeed in a rapidly changing world."

For perspective, "eliminate some silos" brings up 8 results; it's a perfect example of how bold and generalized truisms can become conventional wisdom, while more humble and nuanced thoughts barely light a spark.

Why collaboration collapse happens

Too much collaboration can arise either because a relationship began directly through collaboration (like when two companies merge to work on a project) and the involved parties didn’t know how to move forward without it, and/or because internal pressures (a team’s relationship dynamics, for example) and external pressures (influential business leaders pushing persuasive messages in major publications, for example) led to its overuse.

Much of what I studied internationally had to do with collaboration across different organizations, but it’s easy to see how collaboration collapse can take root in a typical progressive startup.

When the company first began, collaboration likely played a major role in how the leadership team made decisions. When they were a team of three they kicked ideas back and forth on a regular basis, eventually ping-ponging toward a consensus. But what about when the team grows to 5 or 12, or 57? What about when roles change and a relatively flat team now begins to develop structure?

The relationships formed in the early stage carry deep bonds, and the ways of working then can be perceived as how there can be success now. The problem of too much collaboration arises when each leader—now splintered off into their own role and with their own teams—can't cut those cords. Many decisions now rest on their shoulders, yet they spend precious resources trying to get one of the other leaders caught up on all that's going on (for the sake of ping-ponging to a consensus, like old times). This process can be a tremendous hit to individual and company productivity.

As Mark Nichols wrote in Hiring Friends Won't Destroy Your Business, But Terrible Communication Will, part of leading a startup is a mindset that you don't fully know what you're doing. Who does? Well, it's easy to turn to the wildly successful experts writing at publications like Forbes and Entrepreneur. As I alluded to above, there's a fairly clear consensus among most of the powerful sources of knowing out there: we should eliminate silos and pursue collaboration whenever we can.

The advice is often positioned as some epic battle of Good vs. Evil, that leaders in their metal mesh jackets should slay the dragon named Silos in order to collaborate. A recent article at Forbes puts it like this, and there are thousands of similar articles all pushing forth the same idea:

Silos stifle communication and prevent teams from working together to achieve organizational objectives. Chief marketing officers, with their focus on the customer, are ideally positioned to bust silos and promote the kind of collaboration that leads to a better customer experience and real growth."

But what can happen when silos are targeted and dismantled because... because?

Those that may have been incredibly productive, important parts of the overall team are lost, all for the sake of possibly productive collaboration—and all because the powers that be pushed the bold but generic message (and framed it as though a company must choose between the two or risk failing miserably).

Thankfully, scholars are increasingly studying how best to collaborate, and this involves questioning what has long went unquestioned. It also means they are researching workplace productivity both at the employee and company level.

In their article for Harvard Business Review titled Collaborative Overload, researchers Cross, Rebele and Grant open with:

"Collaboration is taking over the workplace. As business becomes increasingly global and cross-functional, silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success. According to data we have collected over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.

Certainly, we find much to applaud in these developments. However, when consumption of a valuable resource spikes that dramatically, it should also give us pause. Consider a typical week in your own organization. How much time do people spend in meetings, on the phone, and responding to e-mails? At many companies the proportion hovers around 80%, leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own. Performance suffers as they are buried under an avalanche of requests for input or advice, access to resources, or attendance at a meeting. They take assignments home, and soon, according to a large body of evidence on stress, burnout and turnover become real risks."

The researchers at once acknowledge the importance of collaboration while questioning the relationship dynamics of having too much of it, all while lending scientific credence to the "critical work [employees] must complete on their own." The piece also addresses how collaborative work is often lopsided in companies because those more willing naturally take it on (and receive requests to do so), and how women (due to the caregiver stereotype) tend to bear more of the burden.

Signs of collaboration collapse to look for

As noted above, a workplace culture obsessed with collaboration might not be fully aware of how its environment has become unproductive. Here are a few signs to look for:

-Employees routinely turn to each other when they don't need to

-Meetings are mandatory, routinely drag on, and rarely end with (or result in) something actionable

-Employees routinely find themselves in meetings that are barely or in no way related to their personal or company-wide productivity

-Employees routinely feel guilty when they say no, or when they otherwise want to set boundaries in order to maximize their focus

Notice the key word here? Routinely. As great as collaboration can be, we do our company and our colleagues a major disservice if we don't question why we're doing it, if we default to collaboration based on routine rather than need.

The Collaborative Overload authors paint the particularly burdened employee's perspective like this:

We find that what starts as a virtuous cycle soon turns vicious. Soon helpful employees become institutional bottlenecks: Work doesn’t progress until they’ve weighed in. Worse, they are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective. And more often than not, the volume and diversity of work they do to benefit others goes unnoticed, because the requests are coming from other units, varied offices, or even multiple companies."

A (middle) way forward

It's not a bold and generic truism, but here's what I found to be true:

Company leaders must foster a workplace culture that values and continually optimizes both its silos and its collaborations.

This can be achieved through a variety of measures—from leadership that routinely questions the effectiveness of both, to office design that provides a mix of open and closed spaces.

A natural outcome of not embracing this middle way is that the company may be forced into one of two unproductive polarities. Either they will go all-in on collaboration and lose those crucial periods of intense concentration that productive knowledge workers need, or the company will drift toward the kind of uncommunicative and ultimately inefficient ways of working that can happen when organizational silos are allowed to metastasize.

The praises for collaboration have been sung, and someone is singing them now. Good. But let's not forget to praise the silo, the existence of which allows us "...to filter out irrelevant information and highlight what’s important."

After all, if deep work really is the killer app in our knowledge economy, the time is now to reevaluate how we've come to see and use our silos.

Has your team suffered from collaboration collapse? How did you know it was happening? Likewise, have you found value in silos?

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-Lead Artist: Os Gêmeos, photo by paperpariah

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