books - business 2008

Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars

A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers that Turn Colleagues into Competitors

by Patrick Lencioni (founder and president of The Table Group, a management consulting firm specializing in executive team development and organizational health)

from the intro… To tear down silos, leaders must go beyond behaviour and address the contextual issues at the heart of department separation and politics. The purpose of this book is to provide a simple, powerful tool for addressing those issues and reducing the pain that silos cause. And the pain should not be underestimated.

Silos – and the turf wars they enable – devastate organizations. They waste resources, kill productivity, and jeopardize the achievement of goals. … There is perhaps no greater cause of professional anxiety and exasperation – not to mention turnover – than employees having to fight with people in their own organization. The good news is that this is all immensely avoidable. In fact, I have never used a tool with clients that has been so universally and successfully adopted.

I love all of Patrick’s books – the fable format makes them easy and enjoyable reads, with the subject matter always powerful and full of learnings. Ones to own, for sure!

Excerpt from the book:

Test Number One
Jude spent much of that evening preparing for the next morning’s session with Lindsay and her team.

By the time he arrived in the conference room at the hospital, he was feeling pretty confident
that his theory was more solid than ever. But that confidence was offset by the reality that a new
group of executives could change everything.

As soon as the team of eight was seated around the table, Lindsay introduced Jude and succinctly explained the reason he was there. “We need to start working as a hospital, and not as separate departments that happen to share a building.”

Everyone seemed to be in agreement with the goal.

Jude then went to the front of the room and asked the group a series of questions about their
behavior as a team. How comfortable were they in being open with one another? How much did they engage in honest debate? That kind of thing.

After an awkward few minutes, the team opened up. Soon enough Jude came to the conclusion,
as Lindsay had suggested he would, that there were no blatant personality clashes among the group and that the silo issue was probably more structural and organizational than interpersonal. So Jude moved to his pitch.

First, he asked them for examples of crisis situations they had been in, and for the next ten
minutes helped them come to the realization that teams often perform at their best when their backs are up against a wall.

He told the group about his wife’s emergency room experience, which not only was helpful in
driving the point home, but seemed to help them come to know Jude as a person rather than just a consultant.

As the lesson was beginning to take hold, out of nowhere Jude asked a rhetorical question of the
group, one he decided should be a staple of his workshops in the future: “Why wait for a crisis?”

It was as though he had just told them about electricity.

He continued, with more enthusiasm than he had yet demonstrated to a group of clients. “Why not create the same kind of momentum and clarity and sense of shared purpose that you’d have if you were on the verge of going out of business?”

That set off an outbreak of nods and raised eyebrows from the suddenly engaged audience. Now that he had them where he wanted them, Jude decided to get right to the meat of his session and asked the $64,000 question: “What is the single most important accomplishment that this team needs to make in the next six or nine months?”

My flags…

pg 135 “This is not about figuring out how to accommodate all our functional areas. I really don’t care about your departments or titles or functional responsibilities. I want all of us focused on what’s important, regardless of where it falls in the organization.” He looked at the legal counsel. “And that means I want you, as a member of this team, to be just as involved and interested in what we’re doing around products and marketing as you are around legal issues. That’s why I put you on my staff. Not because you’re a good lawyer, but because you can contribute across the board.”

pg 141 After an awkward few minutes, the team opened up. Soon enough Jude came to the conclusion, as Lindsay had suggested he would, that there were no blatant personality clashes among the group and that the silo issue was probably more structural and organizational than interpersonal.

pg 149 Jude put it on the list and stood back for a moment to let them soak it all in. Then he decided not to wait for someone to ask the next inevitable question. “Now, I bet some of you are thinking, what about our day jobs? Rest assured that we’re not forgetting the fact that we have to continue doing surgery and treating patients and paying bills and collecting insurance. …Those tasks are and will always be critical. But if that’s all we’re thinking about, then every month and every quarter and every year that goes by won’t make this a better hospital.

pg 155 Lindsay was suddenly fired up, and spoke out with more force than usual. She seemed to be responding to what her COO had just said. “Then let me be very clear to everyone here. You should all go back to your direct reports and tell them what we’re focused on here. We need to help them understand what our priorities are, and why we can or can’t do some of the things they want.”

pg 178 Components of the Model – the model for combating silos – as illustrated in the fable – consists of four components:
– a thematic goal
– a set of defining objectives
– a sent of ongoing standard operating objectives
– metrics

Thematic Goal – definition – a single, qualitative focus that is shared by the entire leadership team – and ultimately, by the entire organization – and that applies for only a specified time period.

To avoid politics and turf battles, executives must establish an unambiguously stated common goal, a single overriding theme that remains the top priority of the entire leadership team for a given period of time. In turn, this thematic goal serves to align employees up and down the organization and provides an objective tool for resetting direction when things get out of sync.

Before further exploring the exact nature of a thematic goal, it might be helpful to describe what it is not. A thematic goal is not a long term vision or, as Jim Collins and Jerry Porras refer to it in their terrific book Built to Last, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Nor is it a tactical metric or measurable objective.

While it is certainly a good idea for companies to have both a vision to motivate people over the long term and a set of tactical objectives to guide their daily activities – and most do – the thematic goal lies somewhere in between the two, and I believe it may well be even more important. That’s because it bridges the two by making the vision more tangible and by giving the tactical objectives more context.

Figure 1: Thematic Goal – the single, temporary and qualitative rallying cry shared by all members of the leadership team

Let’s look at the key elements of a thematic goal to understand how it happens (bits below are excerpts from the book).

Single – in an organization, there can only be one true thematic goal in a given period. That’s not to say there aren’t other desires, hopes, and objectives at play, but none of them can be attempted at the expense of accomplishing the thematic goal. Every organization needs a top priority. When a company is tempted – and most always are – to throw in one or two extra top priorities, they defeat the purpose of the thematic goal, which is to provide clarity around whatever is truly most important. This is best summarized by the wonderfully simple adage, “If everything is important, then nothings is.” Something has to be most important.

…. Oftentimes, a team’s initial guess at a thematic goal will actually be one of the defining objectives that create the context for the goal.

Qualitative – the thematic goal is not a number, and it is not even specifically measurable. It is a general statement of a desired accomplishment. It requires a verb, because it rallies people to do something. Improve, reduce, increase, grow, change, establish, eliminate, accelerate.

Time bound – the thematic goal does not live beyond a fixed time period, because that would suggest that it is an ongoing objective. … it is a desired achievement that is particularly important during that period, and must therefore be accomplished in a corresponding time frame (usually somewhere between three and twelve months, depending on the nature of an organization’s business cycle and unique situation).

Shared – The thematic goal applies to everyone on the leadership team, regardless of their area of expertise or interest. While it is true that some thematic goals will naturally fit largely within one particular executive’s area of responsibility, it is critical that all team members take responsibility for the goal, and for doing anything they can to move the company – not just their own department – toward the accomplishment of that goal. That means executives must remove their functional hats, the ones that say finance or marketing or sales, and replace them with generic ones that say executive. They must dare to make suggestions and ask questions about areas other than their own, even when they know relatively little about those areas.

But a thematic goal, on it’s own, will leave an organization confused about what exactly to do. And that’s where defining objectives come into play.

Defining Objectives
Once a thematic goal has been set, a leadership team must then give it actionable context so that members of the team know what must be done to accomplish the goal. These are called defining objectives because they are the components or building blocks that serve to clarify exactly what is meant by the thematic goal. Like the thematic goal, defining objectives are qualitative and shared across the entire team.

Qualitative – assigning numbers and dates to defining objectives only serves to limit the involvement of the entire leadership team members who cannot see how they might directly impact a numerical target. Rest assured, quantification comes soon enough.

Shared – it is worth restating here: often the best suggestions and ideas about an issue come from people not closely involved in the issue. They bring valuable objectivity, even naivete, to the table.

Time-bound – when then thematic goal is no longer valid, the defining objectives also change.

Standard Operating Objectives – in addition to the objectives that provide definition around the thematic goal, it is critical to acknowledge the existence of other key objectives that a leadership team must focus on and monitor. These are ongoing objectives that don’t go away from period to period. The danger for a company lies in mistaking one of these critical objectives, like revenue or expenses, for a rallying cry. Most employees find it difficult to rally around”making the numbers” or “managing expenses” knowing that these will continue to be trumpeted as critical over and over again in future period. … Calling revenue a standard operating objective shouldn‘t diminish the importance of achieving it. In fact, it sends a message that the effort is always important, but not enough to generate success on its own.

Metrics – … a leadership team can now start talking about measurement. Keep in mind that even metrics are not aways quantifiable numbers. Often they are dates by which a given activity will be completed.

pg 197 Managing and organizing around the thematic goal… weekly, first go around the table and give every member of the team 30 seconds to report on their top three priorities for the coming week. Then review your team scorecard, which is nothing more than a to-be-graded list of the items that make up the defining objectives and the standard operating objectives. Colours assigned to each area (green, yellow, red) are a simple, qualitative assessment based on the judgement of the leadership team members. … The point of the exercise is to tap into the judgement and intuition of the people running the company as to which areas are doing well and which aren’t. Once the ratings are done – this usually takes five minutes – the team is ready to decide where to spend the time and energy available during the remainder of the meeting. And this would be the time for someone to challenge a teammate who is planning to spend a good chunk of time that week on an issue that is either disconnected from the thematic goal or related to an area that is already doing well.

… as obvious as this may seem, it is an extremely common problem among many teams. All too often, executives spread their time evenly across all departments and issues, giving equal attention to every topic regardless of where it falls in terms of importance or progress. Meetings become show and tell sessions designed to give everyone time to talk about their departments and activities. This only reinforces silos and makes it more likely that critical issues get too little attention from the entire team.

pg 204 As for BHAGs, every organization should probably have them. .. But they don’t provide enough guidance about what people should actually focus on once they get to work. … it’s the thematic goal that ties it all together. Without it, BHAGs lose connection to day-to-day activities, and weekly metrics become arbitrary and lifeless numbers that seem to serve no purpose other than their own. A final thought about this. When a thematic goal is clearly established and communicated, employees should be able to look up from their work at any given time and see how they’re contributing to an outcome that is far enough away to given them the ability to succeed, but not so far away that they cannot ever imagined being finished. They should be able to see how the company’s long term vision connects to its short term objectives.

pg 206 Like a canary in a coal mine, a confused or conflicted employee can be a sign that the thematic goal and defining objectives aren’t being communicated effectively, or more importantly, aren’t being used to manage the organization from above.

For PDFs of The Silos Model, Thematic Goal Roadmap, and more, visit

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