16/08/18

Silos: Part I — The destroyer of nations (and tech teams)

By Austin Henry Mackesy-Buckley (Agile Coach at Delivery Hero Germany)

Silos. Those great, big cylindrical, tornado-food, towers you frequently see side-by-side on the great plains of the U.S. of A., usually filled with grain or sawdust that are technically the same but are, for all intents and purposes, separate structures. The word has come to also represent business entities that have little to no interaction with others despite being “on the same team”.

The concept is not new with many resources available on the topic, however it is still pervasive and its pitfalls are still causing a loss in business agility. While this is a topic most in tech should be aware of, leaders in particular have a responsibility to navigate their team, be it big or small, safely through the treacherous waters of software development and away from the wrecking rocks of silos. But this is no easy feat.

This post (Part I) will explain why diverging purpose can lead you down the road to silo-hell. Part II will elaborate on one of the more common reasons why some might choose to divide a tech team and list a few of the resulting consequences.

And while we’re at it, we’ll throw in an analogy from antiquity.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

When Julius Caesar (also known to some as J.C.) subdued the Gauls in the 50s BC, he did so using an age old tactic known as ‘divide and conquer’. The idea is simple; isolate individuals or smaller groups from the larger group and you can weaken it to the point that it will either collapse on itself, or be easily defeated. Caesar knew that a coordinated, unified entity driven by a common goal is far stronger than one that is divided. Divided not just physically, but also in purpose. Two thousand years later, this concept still rings true for every and any entity, including sports teams, companies, countries, military etc.

In some cases diverging or differing purpose can cause physical separation, however many entities are already divided into distinct parts for different reasons e.g. Gaul into tribes, business into departments, team into team members. In such circumstances the whole can still remain resilient but collaboration and communication toward a unified goal becomes absolutely paramount. Keeping the parts of the whole aligned however, is no easy feat and in many cases physical division is the first step towards becoming siloed.

Diverging purpose — the straw that breaks the camel’s back

Allow the goals of different organisational units to diverge and the whole will be severely weakened. Internal conflict, attrition, the rise of politics, negligence and ignorance between essentially members of the same team, can all become dire consequences.

Goals can diverge for any number of reasons. For the Gauls, having your children taken hostage could make you think twice about boarding the Rebellion Bus. Specifically in a business environment today, a group within a company or team might not buy into the larger vision, or prior physical division might naturally have generated separate organizational units that work on separate agendas.

With their own goals and their own interests, these smaller groups can be difficult to manage as a single team and can quickly become isolated; the left hand no longer knowing (or caring) what the right hand is doing. They become silos.

Wrapping up Part I

As you may have already guessed, there are usually two prerequisites for qualifying as a silo:

  • it must constitute a distinct part of a larger whole, be it a system, process, department, team or individual, yet at the same time;
  • it must operate in relative isolation from the others

Although silos are the antithesis of a strong, unified entity, being a ‘unified entity’ (e.g. a team) is not all rainbows and unicorns.

Somewhat ironically silos often form because of the difficulties in sustaining a singular direction and purpose, especially if your team already has distinct parts, but there comes a point where division can become too fine-grained; where dividing, now means dividing into pairs or individuals. This occurs at the tech team level, and at this level and in this industry it can develop a unique set of problems.

So why then would you divide a tech team? Often, for the same reason many larger groups are divided; in response to pressure to move faster.

Hang around and I’ll elaborate in Part II.