Don’t Break Down Silos

Don’t Break Down Silos

Each September, I spend time investing in my own education. This year, Steve Holt suggested I register for the Cynefin practitioner foundation class from Cognitive Edge. The class sparked many aha moments for me, among which, the notion that short stories from multiple sources are much more relevant and powerful than studies reported by experts in their field.

However, the biggest eye opener for me was when instructor Michael Chevedave said, “Don’t break down silos.”  What?!?! Here I had been talking and writing about breaking down silos (see August 2011 issue of Cutter IT Journal — “Devops: A Software Revolution in the Making“) in order to build rapport between people who should work better together. My thinking was that people who work together frequently on the same team have a better chance of bonding (and therefore will work together smoother) through the sharing of common goals. After all, one of Deming’s 14 infamous points is, “Break down barriers between departments.  People must work as a team….”.  And the Devops community consistently barks on “Breaking down silos”.

I was enlightened when Michael followed “Don’t break down silos” with, “Work to bridge silos.”, and recommended reading Bramble Bushes in a Thicket – narrative and the intangibles of learning networks by Cynthia Kurtz and David Snowden.

The article emphasizes the advantages of organizational silos (rapid communication and response) and goes on to state that,  “A well-functioning team within an organization can concentrate its energy and expertise (and identity) into the tasks it is best suited for.” Organizations capable of renegotiating handoffs and connections between teams make them and the entire organization more effective.

There are good reasons to believe silos are problematic. Stories abound of development and operations teams who are in direct conflict with each other. Often the problems begin when teams are unaware of mutually critical information and unable to consider the perspectives and needs of other groups. A culture of seeing value in conflict can help. Productive conflict is a source of inspiration and creativity and can be used as a positive force.

Silos occur naturally and evolve over time based on human need.  There will always be Silo’s. Attempting to break them down or remove them doesn’t appear to be the solution. Going forward, I think I’ll pay more attention to building resilience for siloed teams.

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