My Boss! My Team! My Silo!

Silos are poison for company collaboration and they block agile work structures. Nevertheless, they are so hard to get rid of. Also because people are looking for security and belonging.

Tim Höttges has a vision: The new, digital Deutsche Telekom aims at simplicity, speed and agility.

At the Townhall Meeting held in mid November at our Bonn offices in Landgrabenweg, Deutsche Telekom's boss vehemently called for more speed in implementing change. He also stressed that this is massively increasing in board attention and becoming one of the most difficult tasks facing Deutsche Telekom:

We need to find a culture in which we think like entrepreneurs - and not like bureaucrats.

Snug in the cocoon

Experts in organizational design agree that one of the biggest risks to the digital revolution is what they refer to as 'silo mentality':

"whatever is poured in at the top comes out unchanged at the bottom."

Many people work exclusively in their silos. They are poorly prepared to work cross-functionally. They rarely end up in that position intentionally: it is usually the result of 'unintentional habit'.  Sometimes they act out of a need and desire for stability in what they regard as a stressful and complex world. Following the slogan "My boss. My team. My silo", they curl up hedgehog-like within the company in an effort to keep outside influences to a minimum.

This reflex to 'circle the wagons' can also be found outside the business world. In fact, it can be found everywhere in society. It is expressed in the urge to retreat into one's own private zone, a tendency referred to as 'cocooning', or in a desire for increased nation-based separation, as we are seeing now in both Europe and other regions of the world.

But we need to be clear about it: retreating to some imagined new idyll is not an appropriate response to the challenges that globalization and digitization pose!

The Yearning for belonging

Still: it needs to be recognized that people yearn for a familiar home place, both in their private and professional life. Employees want an environment to which they have a feeling of belonging. "This is an ancestral human need", says management mentor Reinhard Sprenger, who recommends that management should create new sources of security for themselves and their employees in an uncertain world. They should above all aim to build up a collective identity. Tim Höttges marked out the direction to go in his strategic update:

"We aim to lead the way - and by that I'm not talking about size, but about attitude."

No space for silo thinking

The aim is to allow no place for 'silo mentality'. Yet, is that not all just wishful thinking? Will internal competition not just end up reinforcing the boundaries between departments in an effort to gain recognition from the local "top dog" (following the slogan "it's us against the rest of the world")? And can that sense of community that forms within project groups not lead to project teams wrapping themselves into a cocoon and becoming deaf and blind to critical opinions and unwelcome ideas?

This phenomenon has been discussed in the literature of organizational sciences under the heading 'project cocooning'. The bunker mentality also develops mainly due to the individual's concern to find a secure place in the organizational chart. Where on earth will I end up in an environment, in which digital transformation is increasingly breaking down boundaries between departments? Seeing the silo as a source of stability and durability – is that a common attitude too?

Trying out ideas

We at Deutsche Telekom too are looking for new ways to break down stultifying silos within the company.  That is why, among other measures, Chief Human Resources Officer Christian Illek is aiming to firmly anchor the 'design thinking' methodology across the whole business and to experiment with models for cross-functional collaboration. "Why shouldn't workers use some of their skills in projects outside their direct duties?", asks the CHRO in his blog ("Einfach mal machen", which translates roughly to "just do it").

Psychological security

In order to make that happen, there has to be trust, openness and psychological security. Anyone who wants to create a workspace free of silo mentality is going to need to achieve an environment, in which people have the confidence to ask questions and admit failures, and in which people feel secure - free of the fear of looking a fool or of making themselves unpopular.

In a 2015 study, Google identified psychological security as by far the most important factor in enabling effective teamwork. If cooperation shall work well, co-workers must speak openly with one another: "I don't know how to do this, could you please help me?" or "Could you please clarify this point once again? I'm not sure if I understood it fully" or "I don't think that's a very good idea – couldn't we do it this way instead?"

Get working on the culture

US economist and Stanford professor Burton Lee believes that there is too little talk about corporate culture in German and European enterprises. The professor is not shy about using martial images: "The atmosphere of internal war within the company is a thing of the past." Especially "young people in particular are looking for more cooperation, less war," which inevitably makes the topic of good teamwork a generation question.

Christian Illek sees things differently. For him, successful cooperation in the digital age is not a question of older vs. younger people, but of wanting vs. not wanting to achieve that change. It is a matter of attitude – of accepting new flexibility:

Flexibility is becoming 'the new normal' at work. Properly embedded within a responsible corporate culture, it's what provides the key to the successful digital transformation of work.


(Christian Illek, 2017)


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