The Pathologies of Silo-fighting

The division of labour has been the main principle for structuring organisations in the last two centuries. That is still the dominant approach for allocating resources, information and power in companies and public institutions. The new dynamics in a connected world have revealed a rich spectrum of problems related to these structures ranging from ineffective coordination to turf wars. This gave birth to the stigmatising label ‘silos’ and a whole industry of silo-fighters armed with silo-bridging or silo-breaking services, methods and technologies.

Here I will point out the two most prominent organisational pathologies brought by such silo-fighters. I’ll split the silo-fighters’ strategies into silo-bridging and silo-breaking – an oversimplification – to make the illustration of the two pathologies more clear.

‘Bridging the silos’ is not a strategy based much on appreciating their role and thus opting for bridging over breaking.  It’s mainly due to silo-fighters’ insufficient resources and power. If they manage to sell successfully the story of the bad silos, coming with a rich repertoire of metaphors such as walls, chasms, stove-pipes, islands and such like, then they get permission to build – as such a narrative would logically suggest – bridges between the silos.

Now, the problem with bridges is that they are either brittle and quickly break, or they are strong enough to defend their reason to be. They break easily when they fail to channel resources for a longer time than the patience over their initial failures would allow. However, identity formation switches on viability mode. The bridges start to grow out of a network of decisions supporting their mission, now turned into an ongoing function. If the reason the bridges exist are silos, and the bridges want to keep on bridging, then the silos have to be kept healthy and strong as they are what the bridges hang on to.

The bridges reinforce and perpetuate themselves up to a point, in which they are recognised as silos, and the problem is solved very often by building new bridges between them. This is how a cancerous fractal of bridges starts to grow. As attractive as this hyperbole is, I have witnessed repeatedly only two levels of recursion, but isn’t that bad enough?

In contrast, the silo-breaking strategies want nothing less than the destruction of silos. There, the silos are seen only in their role of a problem. Nobody asks what kind of problems this problem was а solution to. Instead, these silo-fighters start waging exhausting wars. The wars can end up in several ways. A common one is resource depletion. Another is with the silos withstanding, or with the silo-fighter being chased away or transformed. And then of course it could be the case of victory for the silo-fighters. And this is when the disaster strikes. Having the silos down, the silos fighters are faced with all the problems being continuously solved by the silos during their lifespan. Usually, they have no preparation to deal with those problems, neither they have the time to come up with and build alternative structures.

When discussing these two pathologies, it is very attractive to search for their root cause and then, when found, fix it. But that would be exactly the fuel these two types of silo-fighters run on. It takes a deeper understanding of the circularity of and in organisations, to avoid this trap. By ‘understanding’, I mean the continuous process, not the stage, after which the new state of ‘understood’ is achieved. And it takes, among other things, the ability to be much more in, and conscious of it, and at the same time much more out, but only as a better point for observation, not as an attempt for excluding the observer.


2 thoughts on “The Pathologies of Silo-fighting

  1. Very disorienting post, spinning round a circular argument until the reader feels dizzy. So the structures labelled ‘silos’ are related to a ‘rich spectrum of problems’, as the new dynamics have revealed … “Silos must be bad, then”, might the reader be tempted to think. But wait, Ivo implies that those who think silos are bad (the silo-fighters) are themselves no better, as they bring ‘organisational pathologies’. If silos are bad and fighting silos is no better, is everything rotten and we might as well abandon all hope ?

    Let’s try to turn this argument inside-out, and look at the bright side of life. Indeed silos are not bad in themselves, they appeared as a consequence of specialization and specialization is at the root of the progress of the human society. The “silo” label designates the less desirable side-effect of specialization – “breach of communication and coordination”. Ivo dismisses quickly the fighting of “silos” by building bridges but I don’t quite see why (except because he’s in love with his melancholic, autumnal mood of despair and decay). What if actually the ‘bridge builders’ do appreciate the role of specialization (if not its side-effects) ? And if the bridges become strong, why is that bad ? Specialization is good as it fosters improvement, innovation and progress. So yes, in that sense, the visible consequence of specialization (silos) better be healthy and strong. There’s nothing “cancerous” here in my opinion as each level of recursion is more and more difficult to justify – this is the reason why Ivo never witnessed more than two. In contrast, in a cancer, the growth becomes ever easier, not ever harder as the tumor grows, so it’s exactly the opposite – it’s much easier to witness big tumors than a small ones.

    So no, I am not convinced at all that silo-bridging is a pathology, quite the contrary. The circularity resides only in Ivo’s argument, which basically says “A is bad AND ‘NOT A’ is bad as well” which leads the reader to ask: “define good and bad !” If A and NOT A both are bad, it might be that the empty set is our only salvation – not very satisfying (except if you want to indulge in a bit of autumnal melancholy)

    Cheer up, Ivo ! Things are not quite so desperate as you seem to think ! :)

    • Sorin,

      There is indeed some circularity related to my argument and I’m impressed that you saw it, as it is not in its form. Apart from observations, my argument is based on appreciating the inherent circularity in social systems. I’m sorry it made you dizzy.

      In what fallows, you inference is right up to the point, where you wrote

      is everything rotten and we might as well abandon all hope

      No. I don’t know how I have implied that, but in any case, my intention was to point out to two pathologies, not to justify desperation.

      Regarding specialisation, I have implied that when it comes to the origin of the ‘silos’, but I wouldn’t reduce or generalise their role to that. Neither can I agree that in general

      Specialization is good as it fosters improvement, innovation and progress

      Now, regarding your assumption that bridging exhausts all the options, and for some reason which I’m not able to follow, you present it as complementary set, I would assure you that I’m just of the opposite opinion – there are many options, apart from the two discussed here.

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