Would it be possible to kill silos?

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Here’s a fun fact: Machiavelli actually predicted business silos in 1513, and you can argue silo thinking has been normative since.

You probably don’t need a definition. But in case you do: marketing only really cares about marketing and distrusts sales and IT. Operations loves operations language and people, but won’t collaborate with HR.

There are two basic arguments you can take around silo thinking:

  1. It’s the normal way of things and companies are still making money, so who cares?
  2. It’s damaging to business.

Thought leaders tend to use (2) and mention the word “transparency” a lot. Transparency is definitely important to business IMHO, but it’s hard to ignore (1). Silo thinking is everywhere and companies are still claiming their 18% growth figures.

So is it really that big a problem?

Not really, because …

… it’s comforting to the human brain to know who you report to and who’s “got your back.” That’s what silos provide. It’s essentially just security over your role and team. Know why that’s good? Because job role is often pretty unclear.

Plus, as somewhat noted in this recent HBR article, we’re all tribal in some way. That’s how we evolved, right? We’re probably never moving back to living in groups of 10–11 and roaming the plains, so silos are the closest thing we have to our evolution. That has to count for something.

The other reason we’ll never eliminate silo thinking


Much of the human condition is defined around “in-group” vs. “out-group.”

This has created a few problems in a rapid-tech-growth era, because social media is essentially comparison on steroids. (In-groups and out-groups.) That’s led to increased research on loneliness and isolation.

So now marry all this together: people are lonely and isolated in their day-to-day lives, right? But they go to work and silo thinking means they have “collaborators” and “comrades.”

Psychologically that’s pretty powerful. Hard to see that going away.

Still one more reason here…

Ever seen the stats about the recent explosion of bureaucracy in American companies, even though we claim this is some amazingly innovative time?

Know why that’s happening?

Pretty easy.

Bureaucracy = more people, so the decision-making onus of responsibility is spread out.

People don’t love making decisions. It’s hard, it’s subjective, and it can reduce your feelings of relevancy around work.

Silos help with all this.

Now you’re surrounded by like-minded people — “Hey, he’s a sales guy too!” — and you can alternatively defer decisions to them or throw them under a bus if something goes wrong. (Backstabbing won’t ever depart silo thinking either.)

Effective decision making is largely about reducing “decision debt,” and silos maybe don’t reduce it — but they sure as hell spread around the soil of effective decision making so that no one truly has to own it.

The IT problem

Until about 20 years ago in companies, this is how people collaborated with the IT silo:

  • “Reset this password of mine.”
  • “Hey, printer’s jammed. You handle that?”
  • “I can’t get something off the server. Know anything about that?”

Big differences today.

If you want to get virtually anything done on a big project, you need IT.

Problem with silo thinking, though: a lot of legacy peeps are terrified of IT.

Weird guys. Nerf guns. Hoodies. They smell.

What now?

Usually it’s a lot of bullshit and bluster whereby someone becomes the SVP of IT and all work requests go through that guy. He’s totally slammed and has no context for any project, so most of it falls through the cracks. I just described the last four jobs I’ve had.

This is where silo thinking becomes a real problem.

But again, most of us would rather comfort our brain than hit a nice KPI with IT, soooo… that’s that.

So no, silo thinking isn’t going away

Anyone who claims it is =

  • Full of crap
  • Has no idea how the psychology of work impacts execution
  • Reaching for buzzwords to vaguely prove a point in a presentation, probably adjacent to discussions of “culture”
  • Maybe a well-compensated thought leader

Any other observations on the silo mentality or silo thinking?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/work-with-me/

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