The Silo Effect

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Ladies and gentlemen we live in a world of false opposites, in which we are shown two radically, violently opposing sides for every pressing question and told “Choose one”. Where we are reminded that there are two sides to every coin, a white for every black, a pro for every con; in which we are presented with a statement and then told, “Well, on the other hand…”

But one of the fundamental insights – or for us, revelations – that Gillian Tett makes in the terrifically valuable The Silo Effect is that this implied structure of opposition is not simply inconvenient and frustrating; it is frankly antithetical to our very survival.

Ms. Tett’s book draws heavily on her training as a social anthropologist – in which she has a doctoral degree from Clare College, Cambridge – to understand why corporations and other large organizations develop silos, why they cause damage, and how to avoid them.

And the short answer is, they do, you can’t and you shouldn’t. Sort of.

On the one hand (you will forgive me), you have silos, which are frankly like tribes, and which have their rituals to keep people in, as well as rituals to keep people out. That central to their success is their ability to create a sense of “other”; that they reinforce themselves with the belief that no one can know as much about what we know as we do, otherwise they would be in here with us. That this behaviour fosters the kind of catastrophic blindness that anyone who lived through the Great Recession does not need more reminders of.

All this would appear to argue for the destruction of silos.

But on the other hand (you will forgive me again), a categorical removal of silos would lead, invariably, to an endorsement of non-specialisation. Which itself inevitably leads you to the idea that there are no talents (and that fostering them, as silos do, is a mistake), or more precisely, that there is no efficiency to be had from allowing people to focus and thus become expert in certain areas. Which of course, is idiotic. Why should I, for example, do a shitty and perhaps dangerous job repairing the brakes on my car, when my friend Nick is an expert at it, can do it better and faster than I can, and while he is, I can be doing something else – that he can’t do at all?

So the simple fact is, we need silos. Or rather, we need specialists and experts, and they inevitably organize into silos because they have specialized needs and knowledge – and silos are the efficient organization and empowerment of those needs.

But we also need to not have silos. Because silos tend to create cultures that become so specialized and rarified that they cannot adapt to fundamental changes until it’s too late. Because their blindness is a result of their pursuit of efficiency within their specialization.

This message – that it’s not simply NICE or SMART to include both sides of the coin, but that it is fundamental to our survival – could not come at a more important time.

But, like most nuanced messages, it will probably not be warmly received. Because people don’t get nuance. They want blunt, stupid, simple answers. Like “Get Rid of Silos now! EVERYBODY DO EVERYTHING! You want a hamburger? To hell with the efficiency of McDonald’s – cook it yourself! Or rather, slaughter and butcher the cow yourself! I mean, raise the cow yourself, then butcher and slaughter it then cook yourself your own damn burger. That is to say, buy a hundred and fifty acres of good pastureland somewhere and build yourself a corral and then raise the cows and slaughter and butcher them and then cook them up for lunch.” Shouldn’t take you much longer than a year and half, right?

Or, if you prefer, “EMBRACE SILOS!” Do what you’re good at and only that! Don’t let the others in. Don’t let the others out. Build a fortress, a gated community, a firewall, a REAL WALL – until we find that things like air and water and food aren’t coming in any more, because walls work both ways.

The easy way is rarely the right way. And that’s the bad news.

And we live in an era when it’s never been tougher to sell something other than the easy way.

And that’s the worse news.

But here’s the good news.

If there was ever a place on earth that was built upon the idea of people with radically different skill sets and beliefs and ideologies and even silos clashing with each other in order to create greatness out of the resulting chaos – it’s this place. We should remember that.

This book reminds us why.

The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett was published by Simon & Schuster on 9/1/15 – order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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