Across theperilous silos
The process of growing up involves, sometimes unavoidably, learning to put things into boxes. The things may be physical, for example, toys, or intellectual – such as relationships between the big powers. Hence the jargon expression ‘out of the box’ when we have to think creatively. Silos are boxes – the slightly grander word presumably intended to ascribe gravitas that would hardly suit a ‘box’. People love silos. They have a neatness about them, a sort of “God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world” feeling. That’s one of the reasons you can’t use that expression today. All is not right with the world – far from it. That’s also why silos are perilous, as Gillian Tett said in her excellent piece in yesterday’s Financial Times. And it’s why Martin Wolf took it up and developed it in the same newspaper.
Business invented its own blunderous version of this with the Matrix Organisation which said you can’t speak to anybody other than your line management connections – but with a few exceptions to which you have a ‘dotted line’. Very dotted, if you ask me. It is a direct attempt to keep the powerful safe and stop the up-and-comings from making progress. I always hire people who ignore any matrix rules. They are the progressives. If you need hierarchy to maintain order you are already on the slope to chaos.
Specialisation tends to create silos. It is important that specialists have an environment in which they can work together and compare notes with those who understand them. But they must also get outside that environment and see what the rest of the world needs, what it can handle and what may be dangerous for it. To be stuck in a work silo is to commit career suicide.
We have, or should I say ‘had’, a perfectly good way of avoiding over-siloing. It is called Parliament. Designed as the intermediary between the general public and the experts, it was there to moderate the frenetic enthusiasm of the inventor and to encourage better, less laid back, understanding by the voter. It was not inevitable that specialisation would come to Government and it could have been mitigated. It wasn’t. So now we have Parliamentary Chambers over much of the world filled with specialists who display their freneticism by shouting at each other, sometimes hitting the opposition, occasionally killing what they see as the enemy. They fail as both efficient management and example to the next generation.
Silos invade our lives at many points. Owning a car of a certain expensiveness puts you into a silo, so does living in a certain area. How you speak, where you were educated, what kind of job you do, where you worship, who you mix with – all these denote that you belong to this or that silo – or to many. We need to classify people just as we need to put things in places where we can identify them with other similar things. However, the world is changing fast and so the way in which we group people, situations, threats and opportunities is changing too. Too much silo-ing inhibits our learning about the new order.
How do we cross silos?
First, think about why you want to. Just being obtuse isn’t a good idea. To expand the creativity of yourself and your business is the main reason for doing so. We have all read of cases where someone totally unconnected with a particular line of business has a brilliant idea that transforms an ageing technology into a new one. People already too immersed in silos often don’t see the obvious for their attention to the details.
Next work out which other silos are likely to house the brains that you want to tap. Don’t stick to the obvious. Which silos you choose to connect with is a creative decision itself. Use your imagination to think of the people who have the best brains. They will be your new connections. Finally, go and talk to them. Don’t ask permission or seek a change in the rules that govern contacts within the organisation. Just do it. And if you get a rap on the knuckles, do it again, immediately. And if a further ticking-off, repeat the exercise immediately.
At this stage your critics will get bored with trying to control you. There is a remote possibility that they will fire you. If they do, you are well out of the business. Mostly, however, they won’t do that, they will simply label you as odd, uncontrollable, quirky. They did that with me and I did pretty well out of it.
Of course, then they have simply created another silo and put you into it. I’ve met the best people I know in the silo I was moved to.
But I still have to get out of it from time to time.
If the silo you find yourself in worries you, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can swap anecdotes.
1 December 2022