Silos – are they always bad? When you Google the word “silo”, you’re presented with a range of articles, conversations and quotes that portray silos negatively.
But is this true? I’m sure many of you reading this are ready and willing to tell me how problematic and unhealthy silos can be for an organisation. And, in many instances, I would agree.
The book Collaboration Begins with You discusses the importance of being a “silo buster” in today’s diverse, globalised workforce. As a leader, it’s our job to share what we know and to encourage our teams to share what they know. I think that’s a great thing.
However, it seems to me that nowhere in our conversations are silos recognised as useful in certain situations.
So, what, exactly, is a silo? The Business Dictionary defines “silo” as a mentality:
These are powerful words. And they form part of a larger, mostly damning conversation about silos – a conversation that does not consider context.
In his book, Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, Patrick Lencioni talks about silos being invisible barriers that derail an organisation. They are the manifestations of dysfunctional teams, jeopardising productivity and business success.
This can be true. But it’s important to note that conversations such as this focus on silos as being a deliberate dysfunction within the organisation. They don’t talk about the other side of the silo usage, the possibility of silos being well-intended and potentially useful enablers.
In farming life, silos have been used for thousands of years – literally. Storing grain and produce in silos protects it from the elements, ensuring a steady food supply. I would argue that we have grown as a people and culture as a result of silos.
It can be the same with a business. What if you and your team had a product or approach that wasn’t quite ready to be implemented across the organisation? What if you wanted to test it in a way that didn’t disrupt the rest of the business? In this instance, testing your idea in isolation – in a silo, without outside input or influence – would be highly beneficial. And, once the idea or product was tested and worked on to the point it became useful, it could be brought into the broader organisation for its benefit.
Silos enable innovation. They ensure the core business continues while the new product or approach is tweaked in a safe, isolated space. The innovation has room to evolve at a much quicker rate than if the whole organisation was involved (which could quickly turn chaotic). Indeed, I would offer that a silo is a powerful way for businesses to advance at an accelerated rate, without putting the entire organisation at risk.
If the intention behind the silo is good, and if the process is efficient, it can create successful and far-reaching outcomes. It also offers psychological safety for those inside and outside of the silo.
With this in mind, we must understand what constructs we need to put in place around the silo to ensure it is efficient and successful. Just as farming silos need certain constructs to be useful, so do our well-intended organisational silos:
Environment. We need to think about the environment the silo operates in, recognising that different approaches to silos may suit different environments. Is the environment inside the silo suitable for the product or information being stored? Does it suit the purpose of the product? Does it reflect the desired outcome and the needs of the broader organisational structure?
Climate. What type of conditions do we want to create within the silo, comparative to the conditions outside the silo? Climate conditions have the power to either cool things down or cause unrest and tension. Is the atmosphere within the silo safe? Is the operational or organisational climate at the “right temperature”? Is the need for psychological safety being met for everyone inside the silo – and outside of it?
Structure. A silo must have structural integrity. It needs to be sound and whole. It must be designed to hold whatever it is we want it to contain, being mindful of both the internal and external context. Who is in charge of the silo? How are the risks being managed? Is the product or information maintained and kept in a safe space? Who is allowed in, and who is not? How do we keep the right people in, and others out? To put it differently, what are the ingress and egress pathways for your silo, so things are managed without unnecessary complexity?
Product. The purpose of a silo is to keep a product in a safe place until it can be used. There will come a day when it is introduced into the broader non-silo world. Once the product, idea or approach has evolved to the point it can be presented to the wider organisation, it must be done so in a deliberate, mindful and safe manner. How will you integrate your innovation into the business as a whole?
Silos are neither good nor bad. They are constructs that can be useful when you are deliberate about their intention.
Yes, they are isolating. But sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed to create the change an organisation needs. The isolation of a silo can be a gift, allowing you and your team more time to develop and innovate; emancipating you from many of the business’s broader, often limiting constructs.
So, I challenge you to think beyond the view that a silo is always a bad thing. I would even argue that organisations should use silos more often, to maintain the pace of change without new ideas constantly destabilising the business.
How would your organisation benefit from a well-intended silo? How could it help your team and business to evolve at a quicker pace without interrupting the entire organisation or disturbing the psychological safety of those around you?
Out in the farming heartland, there has been a massive transition for silos in the past 5 – 10 years. What was once an eyesore on the horizon now holds some of the most amazing works of art. Silos are reinvigorating rural towns, providing blank canvases for artists who are creating outdoor galleries, celebrating rural life on an enormous scale.
So, is it time we gave the poor, old silo a break and stopped flogging it to death as a bad thing? Let’s take the lead from those magnificent silos in country towns and use them in ways we hadn’t considered before.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.