On the origin of company silos

As an idealist who rather naïvely believed in shared purpose, I have been confounded by the pervasiveness and silly pettiness of the silos all through my working life. Initially, I approached it with the high-mindedness of youth: We must be able to find common ground! Gradually, that gave away to the cynicism of mid-life: People never change and bureaucracies are inherently corrupting! Eventually, I needed a full therapy - start-up life - to cure me of cynicism and gain some perspective on why silos happen.

I now think that the silos are usually a response to a certain leadership style. Most leaders seem to assume that work-life needs to be built around competition. Office, in this version, is some kind of Darwinian playground where the fittest should survive. Obviously, that misses the point: The most crucial insight of Darwin is the understanding, one that he drew from the breakthroughs in geology, that evolution is a slow process that plays out over millions of years. Compressing the handiwork of the universe within quarterly review cycles is the original sin of modern management, one that usually leads to the dog-eats-dog universe where style trumps substance and everyone is destined to rise to their level of incompetence (Peter principle).

In the organisations where this plays out at the individual level, team level battles immediately follow. Soon enough, it becomes us-and-them everywhere. And, this continues until the very last moment - until the day of collective reckoning, which inevitably comes! As a response, leaders reorganise - and silos become reinforced! They centralise - and silos become all-consuming. Regions fight regions, departments undermine other departments, gossips galore and civil wars erupt. The naïve idealists feel pushed around and eventually leave for start-ups until the silos follow them there.

In my view, the origin of silos is intricately linked with the Darwinian view of corporate life. Once established, it thrives on the mistaken solution of centralisation and bureaucratisation. Instead, a leader, when facing a siloed company, should step back and ask: Is another way viable? Can the sense of shared purpose as strong a motivator as internal competition? My belief is that those who ask the question and have the courage to try it will find out that cooperation is grossly underrated. The Darwinian universe is built around it: The species that survived and dominated it all did so not because they were the fastest or the strongest, but could communicate and work together; they did invent the most curious thing of all - a society, founded on the kindness to strangers! That remains the most human of all impulses and foundation of our collective success. In this, cooperation as culture, lies the most effective antidote of the silos.


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