Flow and Anti-Flow

Of all the various dysfunctions afflicting our companies and institutions, none is perhaps more widely diagnosed and reported than silo mentality. Organizational groups which hoard information, people or other resources, and are then reluctant to share them, are labelled as silos and are criticized for having silo mentality. These silos are viewed as aberrations from good and standard work practices, and every few months another well meaning article urges us to bust, smash, destroy or crash them for the continued wellbeing of our firms. Indeed you’d be hard pushed to find anyone actually admitting to owning or running one.

And yet, despite all the calls for them to be smashed, and despite the fact that we all know one when we see one, silos don’t go away. How is it that they keep cropping up like weeds despite our best intentions? What is it about them that causes them to appear not just in the business world but also throughout education and healthcare where their presence is just as criticized and just as ubiquitous, and in just about any institution we care to look?

The reason is deceptively simple. It’s because they work, at least for the silo owner. Hoarding resources and controlling access to them may not be a good recipe for making friends but it does make the resources and their owner appear more important than if they were freely and readily available. It’s seemingly part of human nature to want the thing that’s withheld from us.

When, for example, we complain about the Marketing Department down the hall acting like a silo it’s only because we want, but can’t get, access to the customer segmentation report they commissioned and have yet to share with anyone in Sales or New Product Development. They have a valuable resource and the fact that they’re not sharing just makes us want it even more. We convince ourselves that without the report we can’t get our job done, which will ultimately risk our ability to get the right product to the right customer at the right time, and who knows, maybe the very future of the company is in the balance! When we elevate the importance of the forbidden resource in this way we do the Head of Marketing’s job for them. They must be important if they control such vital resources. They must need a larger departmental budget and an increased headcount next year. No one gets fired for protecting their resources, even when “their” resources really belong to the company as a whole.

Silos then, both metaphorically and literally, are ways of managing resources to ensure that the silo owner can get the most value out of them. Silos protect and maintain and withhold their resources until demand or need for them reaches its height. Whether those resources are people, information, grain, missiles, money, diamonds, commodities or anything else, the silo owner only releases them when they are needed most and when they can get the most out of them. Silos work by the exact opposite set of principles to Flow. Where flows embody the free movement and connectedness of people, as well as of information, products and other resources, silos manage everything, including people, through tight control, protection and isolation. Silos are the anti-Flow. And yet the vast majority of our organizations, across all major industries, manage their resources in this way. They are silos or, at the very least, are comprised of them.

To dismiss silos, therefore, as aberrations or anomalies is to ignore their importance and to minimize the chances of ever getting rid of them. Dysfunctional they usually are, and the anti-Flow they certainly are, but anomalies they are not. Silos have been working for a very long time and so we really need to understand them before setting about their destruction! And it turns out that there’s a lot to understand. This is not a superficial matter but something that underpins and explains the nature not only of our companies but also of our societies and how we think and act and live.

And so, before I return to Flows, I will spend the next few posts describing what silos are, exploring their deep history, how they work, their extraordinary influence over the shaping of our world, their characteristics, and also what makes them a problem. Then I will return to flows as an emerging and proposed alternative to silos, one that offers a new way of managing resources in a way that is better for them, as well as for the organizations, industries, communities and ecosystems of which they are a part.