Trading One Silo for Another


I think we have silo busting all wrong. Well… partially wrong. I recall a story about a university campus. When buildings were put up on campus, there was a deliberate choice to not build any sidewalks or walk paths. Students, staff and faculty moved freely from building to building and over time, paths were worn into the ground where people had walked. The worn paths were the natural walking routes between buildings. Sidewalks were built on the beaten paths.

The usual approach to sidewalks and walk paths is to make straight lines, usually perpendicular or parallel to buildings. They look nice, neat and organized. But they are often not the way people choose to walk from point A to point B. Traditional organization design creates a neat, easy to understand model of how things should work. When it doesn’t work, we re-organize in the hope we are busting a silo. What happens instead is that we create a new silo. Silos are impossible to avoid. We trade one for another.

If instead, we could focus on the paths, we might have a chance of finding something better. In large knowledge-worker enterprises, the flow of information is the real organization. The rules and policies and containers we build are often not respected when something just has to get done. We use our network of trusted colleagues who have access to the right levers and information. When designing an organization, think about the flow of information. Go out into the organization and look for the beaten information paths. Find the “natural networks”, the ones that actually get things done and reinforce them. The challenge is to reinforce them without inhibiting natural change, or without constraining them.