The Cohen-Miller Report: We Re-orged The Farm, But We’re Still Stuck In Silos

By Jen Miller Cohen-Miller Consulting

Having worked with lots of teams in a wide range of in-house creative and marketing environments, I can say with certainty that the phrase we hear more than any other is “we’re a very siloed organization and we’re going to re-organize so we can collaborate more”.

Siloed? What does that mean? That you work in a barnyard?

The Silo effect

According to Wikipedia, the silo effect is a phrase that is currently popular in the business and organizational communities to describe a lack of communication and common goals between departments in an organization. The focus is inward and information communication is vertical. Silos tend to limit productivity in practically all organizations.

So collaboration clearly requires communication, but it takes a lot more than that. It isn’t achieved just by talking or sharing ideas, it’s built by doing actual work together – sometimes building consensus, but often working through differences so that the best parts of each person/team’s experience and ideas can come together and be acted upon.

My business partner Emily and I always say, collaboration is built through process, not organizational structure… and it isn’t easy.

Again, according to Wiki, collaboration is a recursive (guess that means cursing over and over again) process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals — by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus.

Common goals, sharing knowledge, learning? – Nice in theory, but most people’s real goals (present company included), are to “get everyone else to see things my way and do what I want”. If that doesn’t work, I want to be on a team in which “my boss can beat up your boss” so people will see things my way and do what I want.


Let’s look back at the barnyard for a minute. The silo effect actually gets its name from the farm storage silo in which each silo is designated for one specific grain – similarly a lack of communication and idea sharing between teams. But if we really examine how a farm works, we might see that it’s the opposite of siloed, and offers some great examples of how to collaborate successfully.

Collaboration Part 1: what we can learn about collaboration from barnyard animals

In spite of the obvious individual needs that each animal has for food, shelter, etc., the number-one shared goal of every herd, flock or gander is SURVIVAL. To survive, they must collaborate.

If you ever look closely at a herd of horses, there’s obviously a “boss” horse, but even more important is the role of the “lookout horse”. While the entire herd has heads down grazing or drinking, one horse is always alert to sights, sounds and movement, making sure a lion doesn’t jump on one of the other horse’s backs and take them down. This is the ultimate example of “I got your back”.

Each horse in the herd acts as the lookout at different times, but none can fill that role until they’ve been trained and demonstrated that:

  1. they know what to look out for (lions, etc.)
  2. they can perform the job instead of eating or drinking for themselves

If the lookout moves, everybody moves, without questions. If it’s a false alarm, there are no repercussions – better to be safe than sorry. It’s completely a matter of trust and an attitude of “got your back, not “cover you’re a$*&@”. Good cowboys say that you know you’ve bonded with your horse when the animal trusts you to be their lookout.

Collaboration Part 2: what we can learn about collaboration from old movies

Understanding goals isn’t always as straightforward as survival. Take for example, the old Shatner/Nimoy Star Trek movies.

In Star Trek 2, as Spock is dying from reactor exposure after saving the enterprise from nuclear disaster, he and Kirk sadly agree that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”. Then in Star Trek 3, Kirk risks the Enterprise and the lives of everyone on it to re-animate Spock, saying, “The needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many”.

Which is it Captain Kirk…you’re the boss here and you’re contradicting yourself.

The fact is, business priorities change, and a key to successful collaboration is good communication about goals so that everyone is working towards the same end.

Another good example of collaboration in the movies is the old western shoot out – again, survival as the obvious goal. There’s always a scene where one cowboy says to the other one, “I’ll cover you” (while you stupidly run across the street to hide behind that other flimsy wooden water trough).

This is a serious instance of trust in collaboration. Not only did cowboy 1 communicate his role (the goal is implied) but he let Cowboy 2 know what action he’d take to help achieve the goal (cooperation).

One more critical factor in this situation is – Cowboy 1 needs to “have it”, that is, the gun-slinging skills to actually cover Cowboy 2, and “bring it”, that is, his skills, experience and attention to the matter so that Cowboy 2 doesn’t end up toast in the middle of the dirt road.

Collaboration Part 3: what we can learn about collaboration from other would-be collaborators

Emily and I have worked on projects together for about 5 years and have been in business together for 2 years. We struggle with collaboration, and our success or failure at it has produced respectively our best work and our most frustrating arguments.

You would think with just two people collaboration should be easy. Granted, having a larger number of people requires more structured collaboration, but whenever you have smart, passionate people with strong personalities and really different working styles, collaboration takes work.

Since we can’t really have a re-organization, and that wouldn’t work anyway, we have had to develop specific processes around how and when we work together, and what the output and actions are from that work. The more detailed we are about that, the better our results. Fortunately for me, Emily is really great at details.

We also try to follow each project with a discussion about what worked well and how we can work better together on future projects. It’s not always successful, but we keep working at it, and make progress with each project.

5 things stand out for me as key for successful collaboration:

  1. Understanding of goals and roles
  2. Attitude of cooperation – Got Your Back vs. Cover Your AS*@$
  3. “Having it” and “bringing it” – skills and accountability
  4. A system or process for acting on outcome of collaboration
  5. Willingness to keep working at it