Hold Your Horses, Silo-Breaker

“Organization silos are bad! Break the silos!” 

I was probably 22 when I first heard about the existence of organization silos, isolated functional units that operate their own empire without knowing and without caring about the surrounding silos. I was told that silos are bad and should be broken. At that time, the magic that was meant to destroy the silos was called “business process re-engineering”.

That was more than 25 years ago. Since then, I have been involved in many activities where different spells have been applied to break the silos; in organizations big and small, simple, and complex, local and distributed. Last time I broke a well-established silo structure was less than six months ago. Everyone involved was happy about it because they did not like the siloed organization. They applauded for a few seconds, went back to work and…in less than two weeks, they had built new silos.

There are modern, agile organizations that say they have broken their silos. They have cross-functional teams, each dedicated to their clear mission. They may have something called tribes or whatever. They consist of autonomous and…wait a minute! I think I just described a cross-functional silo.

There are even more modern organizations, built around a philosophy called holacracy. I admit that I have never seen a holacracy in action and I have read only a little about it. Somehow, in a strange way, the principles of holacracy resemble the philosophy and structure of management by objectives, developed by the German army between the world wars.  I know, I’ve probably misunderstood the genius of holacracy completely.

Personal security is inherently based on a sense of control.

No matter how hard we try, silos persist. They are part of human nature. Reference groups and sense of belonging are an important part of a human being’s identity. Sense of belonging is easiest achieved through exclusion. Although it is nice to know what is happening around us, it is actually safe and comfortable to just mind our own business. Personal security is inherently based on a sense of control. Sense of control, albeit false, can be easily achieved by forming a silo, by scoping unpleasant realities out of life.

If you destroy people’s silos they will be full of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Silos seem to be a necessity. In fact, any organization, by definition, consists of some kind of silos. If you plan to break a siloed organization, remember to think in advance what you are going to bring instead and how you are going to make it happen. If you destroy people’s silos they will be full of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. If you don’t define new silos, people will rapidly re-invent them themselves.

To really remove silos we would need a new kind of human race and a radically new kind of organization paradigm. While waiting for that the best we can do is to design our silos so that they do more good than bad for the whole.