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.

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One thought on “Trading One Silo for Another

  1. I couldn’t agree more. And I’m not sure why there’s not more focus on nurturing informal networks.

    Did you know, Raj, that BNR’s Lab 3 in Ottawa was designed by the architects to ensure that lots of spontaneous meetings would take place outside of the cubicles/offices? Those wide stairways and stair landings, the placement of the printers, coffee stations and washrooms all ensured that, whenever someone left their office, there was a high probability they would run into someone. And that someone would probably not be someone they were sitting next to.

    It worked like a charm. Lots of idea- and information-sharing and collaboration happened at these impromptu meetings. I even held an impromptu recruiting meeting for a position I needed filled on the landing overlooking the atrium. It was with someone I would ordinarily not have spoken to. And she became one of my star performers, responsible for many of the successes my team had the next 5 years.

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