The Pathologies of Silo-fighting
Blog: Strategic Structures
The division of labour has been the main principle for structuring organisations in the last two centuries. That is still the dominant approach for allocating resources, information and power in companies and public institutions. The new dynamics in a connected world have revealed a rich spectrum of problems related with these structures ranging from ineffective coordination to turf wars. Hence came the reaction, bringing the conventional stigmatising label ‘silos’ and the birth of a whole industry of silo-fighters armed with silo-bridging or silo-breaking services, methods and technologies.
There are various organisational pathologies brought by these silo-fighters. Here I will point out only the two of them which I see most often. The choice to classify the silo-fighters into silo-bridging and silo-breaking – an obvious oversimplification – is made to support the illustration of the these two pathologies.
‘Bridging the silos’ is not a strategy based much on appreciating their role and thus opting for bridging over breaking. It’s mainly due to silo-fighters’ insufficient resources and power. If they manage to successfully sell the story of the bad silos, coming with a rich repertoire of metaphors such as walls, chasms, stove-pipes, islands and such like, then they get permission to build – as such a narrative would logically suggest – bridges between the silos.
Now, the problem with bridges is that they are either brittle and quickly break, or they are strong enough to defend their reason to be. They break easily when they fail to channel resources for longer time than the patience over their initial failures would allow. However, the identity formation switches on viability mode, and they grow out of network of decisions supporting their mission, now turned into an on-going function. If the reason the bridges exist are silos, and the bridges want to keep on bridging, then the silos have to be kept healthy and strong as they are what the bridges hang on to.
The bridges reinforce and perpetuate themselves up to a point, in which they are recognised as silos, and the problem is solved very often by building new bridges between them. This is how a cancerous fractal of bridges starts to grow. As attractive as this hyperbole is, I have witnessed repeatedly only two levels of recursion, but isn’t that bad enough?
In contrast, the silo-breaking strategies want nothing less than the destruction of silos. There, the silos are seen only in their role of a problem. Nobody asks what kind of problems this problem was а solution to. Instead, this type of silo-fighters start waging exhausting wars. The wars can end in several ways. A common one is resource depletion. Another is with the silos withstanding, or with the silo-fighter being chased away or transformed. And then of course it could be the case of victory for the silo-fighters. And this is when the disaster strikes. Having the silos down, the silos fighters are faced with all the problems being continuously solved by the silos during their life-span. Usually, they have no preparation to deal with those problems, neither they have the time to come up with and build alternative structures.
When discussing these two pathologies, it is very attractive to search for their root cause and then, when found, fix it. But that would be exactly the fuel these two types of silo-fighters run on. It takes a deeper understanding of the circularity of and in organisations, to avoid this trap. By ‘understanding’, I mean the continuous process, not the stage, after which the new state of ‘understood’ is achieved. And it takes, among other things, the ability to be much more in, and conscious of it, and at the same time much more out, but only as a better point for observation, not as an attempt for excluding the observer.