Things That Divide Us

Organizational silos are the source of the most pernicious dysfunctions you can find within any company. What is a silo? Silos are the walls or barriers that we erect in order to separate “us” from “them.”

We are the ultimate corporate reductionists. We divide everyone in the organization down into the most specialized roles that we can tolerate and then we struggle to produce a product using the result. That division ends up reflected in everything that we do, from the products that we produce to the way that we hire new people to help us.

We break things down in so many ways that it boggles the imagination. For example:

  1. Management Responsibility: Executives, Managers, Workers
  2. Roles in the Product Development Process: Sales, Marketing, Development, Architecture, Project Management, QA, Operations, Customer Service
  3. Parts of the Application: UI, Middleware, DB
  4. Locations: Headquarters, satellite offices, international
  5. Languages: C++, Java, Ruby, English, French
  6. Processes: RUP, Agile, Lean

This is just a small sampling of some of the ways in which we divide ourselves within organizations. These divisions serve to isolate people in the organization within hyper-specialized roles. Ostensibly, we do this in order to help people succeed. The Justification might be that no one can be equally good at everything. Therefore, we compartmentalize our lives and those around us in order to filter out the extraneous noise. We try to create a space for focus and success. Ultimately, it is all an effort to help us manage the scope of the learning that needs to take place. All of these goals are necessary and helpful and they are things that come with a price.

Some of the costs of all of this division and compartmentalization are:

  1. Lost knowledge of upstream and downstream processes
  2. Lacking a holistic understanding of the product
  3. A narrow view of the people involved in product development
  4. Often little or no knowledge of the business domain itself

Of course, it does not have to be this way. You can deliver a product successfully without compartmentalizing everyone and everything in an organization within an inch of its life. It requires a different mindset. One needs inter-disciplinary thinking that considers different skills and tries to synthesize a whole rather than divide. This requires a mindset that favors skill over roles, knowledge over assignment.

This focus needs to extend through the entire human dimension: from the self, to the team, and all the way through the organization. In terms of the self, we need to be well-rounded product developers: people who appreciate the logic, art, science, and beauty of our craft and our product. As teams, we need to have the proper balance of skills, from development, QA, the customer, and delivery. Moreover, as an organization, we need to have the people in place to help support the teams and the people on the teams to develop themselves and deliver the best products.

Once we can do that, once we can see ourselves as more than cogs in a machine, once we can collaborate to craft beautiful things, and once the organization can appreciate the beauty of not only the products, but the people who create them, then we can move away from these silos that handicap our organizations now.


4 Responses to Things That Divide Us

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by The Agile Developer. The Agile Developer said: Agile Tools: Things That Divide Us #agile […]

  2. Tom, I agree silos can be detrimental, especially in today’s external environment where clients/customers have powerful voices and businesses need to be customer focused.

    How can all silos (or cogs as you nicely put it) come together to collaboratively serve that customer with the best possible products / solutions / information / communications?

    Do you know of any large companies that have succeeded in breaking down their silos? Are there case studies out there? I’d be keen to hear how they managed it and how they now manage the relevance of information flow.

  3. Tom Perry says:

    Honestly, there isn’t much that I’ve found in the way of case studies out there. You can check out Patrick Lencioni’s book, “Silos, Politics, and Turf wars”

    Our company has had some success penetrating our own organizational silos and building needed relationships. We used a wide variety of strategies, some more successful than others, to accomplish this. I’ll share some of the approaches we used, along with results, in subsequent posts on the subject.

  4. Thanks Tom, I look forward to reading your subsequent posts. I have also had some success but still have a long way to go!

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