Silos and Tribes

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.

– Bob

Further Reading

Great Boss, Dead Boss ~ Ray Immelman

  1. IMO (based on pretty limited experience so far), turning an Analytic company into a Holistic/Synthetic (aka Synergistic) one is a Sisyphean task of epic proportions, even when the company is still relatively small.

    The cruel irony (to me) is that FINDING Synergistic companies that already exist seems just as impossible. They’re either (mostly) not out there, or they’re not advertising the way they work. If they are out there, are they hiding for fear of judgement by The Market? Is it that they don’t see the need to tell the world?

    • Hi Simon,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. From my perspective, not entirely Sisyphean, just hard. Choosing the right approach can help, I posit. Hence my personal focus on techniques from psychotherapy, group dynamics, etc..

      When I was running Familiar, we rarely spoke publicly about being Synergistic (or even Agile) – the market would have been confused, and seemed disinterested in how we got results, just uber-impressed with the results themselves.

      And I also find that most of of the organisations I come across who are to the right of Analytic have got there more or less by accident, rather than intentionally. Hence they remain unaware of the nature of their “advantage” or distinction.

      – Bob

      • Hi Bob,

        I’m congruent with with all the above, and indeed that was what I was hinting at with “they don’t see the need to tell the world”: some may not see the need even though they are conscious that they “Think Different”, but most I suspect are completely unaware (as you describe).

        I’m interested that you see the attempt at such a change as “just” hard. I suspect this may be an artefact of my (as I’m learning) built-in nature of conflict avoidance in the presence of (perceived) authority.

        Or maybe I’m just the greater cynic of the two of us (despite appearances ;).


  2. John Howard said:

    “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.”

    And the cause of much mental ill health.

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