Deconstructing Silos: Visualizing the Flows and Forces of Organizational Gridlock

Every organization is a mish-mash of people. From my experience, most are working very hard but still struggling to get things done. Good leaders know there are myriad forces at work, ranging from culture to incentives to policy and process, all of it strung together by the organization’s structure, the infamous org chart. Unpacking this complexity to address problems can be daunting. But there’s some hope. I believe the tools of System Thinking, popularized by Peter Senge and Donella Meadows, can help us visualize the vital flow of resources and the forces that shape them.

The classic structural curse of most large modern organizations is, of course, the functional silo. So often these common structures bring us face to face with gridlock and productivity issues. They are the essence of bureaucracy. We need to understand why.

System Thinking can help us unpack the forces that create/feed the organizational silo, with simple tools to help us understand what is causing and perpetuating them. 

With some pictures, foot notes, and conversation, we might even discover pathways to alternative models.

What exactly is System Thinking? We started unpacking this last month. To recap, let me share a few simple systems. Picture water flowing in and out of a bathtub, influenced by the spigot and drain positions. Or imagine money flowing in and out (mostly out!) of your checking account, driven by bills, purchases, interest rates, etc. While these are very basic systems, they are intuitive, helping us visualize flows we process subconciously in our day to day. They are simple metaphors to get us into a System Thinking frame of mind. The rest unfolds quickly:

System Thinking, in a nutshell, is a way to show the forces and flows that are influencing how systems work.

You’ve seen impromptu examples on white boards in every company. Often they’re pictures of how work is or should be getting done. The best ones can help us understand structural issues in our approach, helping us find ways to fix them.

Organizations are systems too. Resources flow in, through, and around the various structures and substructures like departments. Whether those resources flow or don’t flow is significant. These are factors that can determine what works and what doesn’t work in a given company. In fact, I will argue that the organizational silo is a product of good ideas (like specialization and quality control) gone too far. It’s worth a deep dive. We often engage in ritual attacks of org silos, but we rarely spare the time to understand why we have silos in the first place. What’s worse, there’s no real focus on why our silos are so hard to break through, or, importantly, what we can do about them.

This diagram is an imperfect first cut at some of the flows impacting, feeding, and sometimes fortifying the silo’d functional organization.

Key forces at work in the organizational silo, through a System Thinking lens. Discussion at #orgdna. Content (c) 2016 Chris Jones. Reuse with permission.

Key forces at work in the organizational silo, through a System Thinking lens. Discussion at #orgdna. Content (c) 2016 Chris Jones. Reuse with permission.

Let’s use our scheduled monthly #orgdna chat to attack this. We’re on tap for MON 5/16 at 10 p.m. ET.  We’ll take 60-90 minutes to discuss these forces and others. We will challenge the picture and it’s implications using the following discussion outline:

  • Q1. Discuss the reinforcing flow of reducing variance to drive improvement. Does it cause silos to form & harden?
  • Q2. Discuss feedback constraints. In the name of focus and specialization, how can this hurt adaptability?
  • Q3. Discuss communication constraints. How does this impact calcification and reduced resilience?
  • Q4. Can a manager takes steps that could allow quality & specialization but avoid silo formation?
  • Q5. What’s missing in the diagram?

I hope you will join us. Our #orgdna conversations are always lively. This one promises no less. We’ll start a little early if folks are around. Just sign on with Twitter with an app like TweetDeck, and follow hashtag #orgdna. Include it in your tweets, and join the conversation.

See you Monday.

Chris Jones (aka @sourcepov)

About Chris Jones

Thinker. Author. Instigator. Dad. Passionate about learning and coffee. Founder of #smchat and #orgdna. Now writing with #coop52 View all posts by Chris Jones

One response to “Deconstructing Silos: Visualizing the Flows and Forces of Organizational Gridlock

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