Silos and Tribes
Of all the conferences I attend, I can’t think of one where this phenomenon is absent. The phenomenon I’m talking about is the tendency of groups of specialists to promote their own specialism as “the answer” to the ills of their organisations – or even of wider society.
UXers, UIers, testers, developers, Agile coaches, marketers, salespeople, accountants, HR, ops folks, architects, managers, psychotherapists, CxOs… the list goes on.
Of course folks want, and need, to believe that what they do – their skills, their experiences, their specialisms, their choices – matters.
And it’s a deeply human foible to feel safer and more comfortable when clustered together amongst like-minded fellows sharing an ostensibly common cause. Not that such tribalism is either good or bad, per se.
What is a Silo?
Just in case you’ve not thought too much about the term “silo”, I use it here in reference to the slicing of organisations along lines of specialism. Hence we find most organisations comprised of many “specialist” departments, such as Finance, HR, IT, Strategy, Ops, Manufacturing, Logistics, and so on.
Organisational silos are a classic manifestation of what Professor Russell Ackoff refers to as “Analytic thinking”. The – almost universal – belief that managing each silo to optimise its performance in isolation, will contribute to the better performance of the organisation as a whole, is a fallacy of the first order.
As he reminds us:
“Reductionistic and analytic thinking derives properties of wholes from the properties of their parts. Holistic and synthetic thinking derive properties of parts from properties of the whole that contains them.
In general, [most folks] do not understand that improvement in the performance of parts of a system taken separately may not, and usually does not, improve performance of the system as a whole. In fact, it may make system performance worse or even destroy it.”
~ Russell L. Ackoff
As long as we each try to improve the competence and contribution of our respective specialisms, we are in fact all playing an unwitting part in a giant conspiracy to make our organisations worse, and our lives within them ever more frustrating.
Tribalism and Factionalism
Outside of some in the software community, I don’t see many folks who understand the many dysfunctions inherent in silos – the organisational structure so beloved of the Analytic mindset. Nor, it would seem, do folks understand their implicit collaboration in perpetuating these silos – and thus these dysfunctions.
For the many folks who desperately want to make a difference – and are endlessly frustrated by the siloisation of their organisations – this seems to me like the deepest and saddest of ironies.
Great Boss, Dead Boss ~ Ray Immelman