Rethinking the Silo: New Designs for Structure and Flow in the 21st Century Organization

In our monthly #orgdna chat, we’ve been discussing the future of the 21st century organization. Some have begun to rethink what is possible. Some have argued, as I have, that leaders should orchestrate their organizations rather than trying to control them, embracing more collaborative models for getting things done. Why?

In short, dynamic models account for the need for organizations to respond to change. Adaptability is a requirement. And resources (e.g., information, people, funding) must be allowed to flow across department/functional boundaries when and where they are needed.

Sadly, silos remain predominant. It’s what everybody is used to. It’s the 100-year-old factory model still being held up as the handbook for modern business. Think about any bureaucratic organization you’ve encountered. They are built in silos that sub-optimize elements at the expense of the whole. They embrace standards, at the expense of change. And perhaps worst, they are virtually programmed to survive.

The good news:  there are some alternative ideas and models in play that set out to change the rules, topics that are worth a deeper dive. So let’s have a look.

First, lets revisit our path:

  • In April, we looked at system thinking (link) as a means to model the structure and flow of the typical silo-based organization, to identify bottlenecks and counter-productive motivators.
  • In May, we deconstructed the silo (link), looking at specific reinforcing flows that create problematic influences, beyond our best intentions.
  • Now, in June, it’s time to look at silo improvements, exploring alternatives to challenges and gaps we’ve identified.

Let’s start with a picture to get us thinking, a visual prompt for ideas that can be complex and abstract when left to words.

Here’s an excellent image offered by a regular #orgdna contributor, Valdis Krebs. The concept of Wirearchy (more) was first coined by Jon Husband in 1999. It is a useful model to explore the alternatives to the organizational silo:

With reflection on this picture, we can resume our Q&A, a dialog on silo factors and alternatives, informed by the Wierarchy idea and fueled by system thinking. Let’s consider ways for:

  • Q1. Restoring Critical Feedback. Adaptation depends on a critical feedback loop, and in silo’d orgs this is often blocked. What new mechanisms could allow feedback to flow across and within silos?
  • Q2. Freeing/Reallocating Critical Resources. We’ve all seen hoarding of financial and human resources within silos produce a negative outcome. What can be done to prevent or discourage this?
  • Q3. Solving Fragility for Resilience. We’ve learned silos that hone deep expertise are fragile or obsolete when demands change. 21stC forces demand adaptability; organizations are seeing shifts in their markets and technology base; operating units must learn to function under new rules. This can be the most daunting kind of change of all. How do we foster adapability and a new resilience?
  • Q4. Optimizing for the Whole. The classic negative silo-driven outcome is optimization at the department or component level, while hurting the larger organization. What is needed to circumvent this self-defeating path?

As we discuss alternatives, let’s continue to use system thinking as a guide. What forces are at work? What controls are increasing, decreasing, or blocking the flow of critical resources? How might these be influenced?

The #orgdna community meets monthly on organizational learning and leadership, typically 3rd MONDAYs at 10 pm ET. Simply sign on to Twitter at that time, and use the hashtag #orgdna to follow the conversation. If you can’t attend, the transcript will be captured in PDF form and linked in a comment to this framing blog post. Prior transcripts are available in a similar fashion, as comments on the respective monthly post.

It’s always a lively exchange. All are welcome. We hope to see you there.

Chris (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

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