Manage the system, not silos

hologramI’ve heard that if you cut a hologram into pieces, each piece contains all the information of the whole.  I’ve never tried it, but I like the idea that each part is a microcosm of the whole thing.

In working with three senior teams in three entirely different sectors over the past month, I’ve heard someone in each of these teams, during the course of the work, utter these words, “We are a microcosm of what is going on in the rest of the business.”  They elaborate, “If we don’t get our house in order, how can we expect the rest of the business to work better together?”  The theme is silos at work and making efforts to work more collaboratively and cooperatively.  In each of these contexts, I shared one of my favourite analogies for silos; it’s as if the organs within my body are fighting each other for primacy.  They are inextricably linked and interdependent, each having their own specialisation and each requiring the other to be at their best, however it’s bizarre to imagine that one organ is more important than the other and that if I had the healthiest heart in the world, the whole of my body would functioning at its optimal level.  In the past, I have heard those who interface directly with customers say to folks who don’t, “If it wasn’t for us doing the real work, you wouldn’t have jobs.”  Imagine my digestive tract saying to my heart, “If I didn’t take in nourishment, you wouldn’t have a job.”  Pshaw.

I believe, from my experience, it’s a shift in consciousness that needs to come to people before they see the connection.  A change in their mindsets.  A whole new perspective.  In many businesses, senior managers grapple with effectiveness and train their gaze on the bits of the business that are dysfunctional, rather than see the whole……rather than see that the health of the parts is directly related to the health of the whole…..rather than see that the health of the whole is directly related to the healthy relatedness between the parts.  When one person makes that statement about microcosms and everyone else stares blankly, I reckon the rest of the senior team has an opportunity to learn how to think bigger if they want to go further.

I don’t believe the case needs to be made for the elimination of silos at work.  I have met nobody who thinks they are a good idea and multitudes who find them ineffective and frustrating.  The question people struggle with is, “How do we get rid of them?”  I think part of that lies with shifting the thinking that got us here in the first place.  To say that silos are ineffective is not to say that specialisation is ineffective.  After all, as we develop into fully-fledged humans in-utero, our cells gradually organise according to their specialisations.  However, our various specialised systems do not, over time, develop ways of functioning in isolation to anything else in our bodies.  They also do not work out ways to operate more optimally at the expense of other parts of the body.  I would not suggest, therefore, that businesses need to throw the specialisation baby out with the silo-ed bath water.  To clarify that last statement, I would not suggest that everyone should learn how to do everything and be generalists who excel at every specialisation.  I’m not suggesting that people’s jobs are determined by simply drawing a role from a hat, regardless of expertise, passion and talent.  Specialisation matters; silos do not.  It simply does not follow that just because we need people with special talents and expertise, the best way to bring these out is to corral them into functionally-aligned departments and fit them with blinkers so they only see their departmental targets.

silos at work

The important point is to view specialisation through systems thinking eyes, not mechanistic eyes.  If I’m a departmental manager in an organisation where silo-ed thinking dominates, I will do my best to ensure that those who report to me reach the targets I set.  If I see the business this way, I will use the words “my team” to mean the folks I manage.

Silos are not simply how an organisation behaves.  If it was that simple, people would have stopped working in silos long ago and started behaving differently.  They spring out of a mentality, a set of assumptions.  Like everything that goes on, what happens happens because there are some assumptions that underly things.  There’s where the work of getting rid of silos begins.  As I’ve written before, most of these assumptions are unconscious and unquestioned.  In silo-ed organisations, there are some assumptions related to the best way of doing things: work is best organised according to functional specialisation, work is optimised when we have reporting hierarchies that monitor achievement of targets, targets are good.  Time to question these assumptions.

If sales are down, it’s the fault of the sales department.  If the work of the creative team is sub-standard, it’s the fault of the creative team.  If clients are unhappy with the service they are getting, it’s the fault of the account management team.  Perhaps.  Perhaps.  Firstly, though, how about looking at lower sales, poor quality creative work or dissatisfied clients as noise in the wider system.  Then the senior team can work together to work out how to act on the whole system, rather than on individual departments.  Rather than being the responsibility of an individual department, perhaps it’s related to the lack of interconnectedness and flow, which is determined by the business structure.  The structure that comes out of the mindset.

Getting out of a silo-ed mentality is about shifting assumptions and perceptions of how a business’s problems are perceived.  I believe this shift is happening when someone in the senior executive team pipes up and says, “We are a microcosm of the whole business and we have to operate better before the whole business will operate better.”  They are beginning to perceive the work of the senior team as making decisions collectively, rather than arguing their corner from their departmental specialisation….rather than fighting for better resources for their department….rather than pointing fingers at other people’s departments.  They are also beginning to see the senior team as “their team”.

The design of a business is heavily influenced by the mindsets and assumptions we bring to it as to how it works best.  When the mindset is that a business is a machine and the job of management is to control it, it is then reasonable that one would design something that is controllable.  Functionally-based departments with hierarchical reporting lines.  This is why I propose that silos are not simply something that happens despite our desire for it not to; we get silos because our beliefs about how businesses best operate design them into being.

It’s a telling comment when I hear an executive team member talk about “their team” and they mean the folks they manage.  I would suggest that for the members of the executive team, “their team” is their peers.  The other members of the executive team; not the people they manage.  When they hear their staff say “that stuff over there (in that other department) has nothing to do with us”, there is the opportunity to reflect on how that silo-ed attitude might be replicated within their senior team.  If they then take it this next step and make the “microcosm” observation, things have begun to change.  When the executive team gets to this place, the opportunity for re-working the work is there.  “My team is the rest of you executive team members.  We need to flow better together.  We need to work together to create value.”  Then maybe they can get to: “How do we need to re-organise the system so that it is creating value for our customers, not our managers?”

Drawing on expertise and people’s specialisations, then, can happen when there is a re-organising of the business structure; when people work together, across disciplines.  Because if people’s jobs are to respond to customer demand and not management control (another example of a mindset thingy), then perhaps structuring the work to be more responsive to customers is a better way to go.  Perhaps.  Maybe getting teams to clump together according to what would best serve the customer might be a better way to organise things.  Perhaps.  Maybe getting teams to consist of, say, a creative specialist, an accounts specialist, a production specialist and a sales specialist could be a better way to organise things at work.  Perhaps.  Rather than have all the creatives clumped together, all the accounts folks clumped together and so on.  In silos.


23 thoughts on “Manage the system, not silos

  1. Thanks (again) John. Continuing a steady stream of useful insights into organisational malaise and the sources of the malady!

    I just hope that readers are looking at their own operations and taking on board how/where they may be going wrong, what they might do to ‘stop the rot’, then adopt a mindset and structure to repair the damage done BEFORE they preside over their own demise!

    The presentation embedded in this article may be helpful:


    1. Thanks for adding in the stuff from the betacodex network, David. I’m a member of the network and I think that work is vital for the 21st century.

  2. The trend is: Specialise AND Connect to others outside to create value and wealth by combinations. Be brilliant in what you are very good at (everybody has something they can be trusted to do extremely well) and learn together with other specialists in other crafts to collaborate across boundaries & improve things fast. Pay each other with respect and Appreciation: that drives us, right?!

  3. You yank on one tiny weed and find yourself pulling up the whole root system.

    From my standpoint, people are afraid of moving outside their silos because it is, ipso facto, a form of criticism and an act of war, based on the assumption that silos by nature compete. To do otherwise is asking — to use another metaphor — a snail to ride a bicycle. “Look, I only have one foot — what are you asking me to do?!” My performance is mine, yours is yours. How will I ever measure my own accomplishment and get the CEO’s approval (and my pay raise) if I don’t compete?

    Sorry to be so dark, John, but don’t you think we live in this kind of world? One where, just to be clear, CEO’s actually like silos as a way to evolve their power and prove to themselves they are adding value even when they are not? It’s a fantasy, I know, but one that deeply hooks people. Standing up to it is just plain tough.

    1. ..this IS the world we live in Dan. That’s one of the reasons I do the work I do….and why I get excited when I hear folks within organisations begin to see the world (and their organisation) as a living system. I want us all to re-vision the world we want to live in and not be content with merely sustaining ourselves through crummy systems that sideline us and dehumanise us. Tough, yes. Necessary, yes, in my view. I’m not willing to acquiesce just yet.

  4. presented a similar theme to young children with the example of a HAND Fingers are complaining that they do not think much of short stubby thumb and dont need him / her.. so thumb decides to sit back and do nothing and let fingers see that he is indeed a vital a part of the whole.. Children explore trying to pick up a stick or something without using their thumbs and easily pick up the point.

  5. But deming could spell systems thinking. Deming is on written record as stating he didn, understand systems and systems thinking.the 95 rule refers to a1920s prison in the US

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