EOW Reflections: What is a Silo?

What is it with silos? I grew up on a farm. A silo was something useful to store grain or grass to stop it spreading over the ground, exposed to the weather, rotting and going to waste. They’re used similarly in construction for precious dry materials waiting to be used. Even a nuclear silo makes sense, specially built underground to keep your nuclear missiles if you have to have them. But in business? I suppose there may be occasions when you do need to have a separate entity that stockpiles information and effectively seal it in. But organisational silos or business divisions that operate independently and avoid sharing information are rarely a good thing. Isn’t that counter to the idea that good collaboration, sharing of information and best practice gets better outcomes for everyone.

I was reflecting as I heard speakers yesterday, talking about their part in the regeneration of Stevenage, that while they were each leading separate entities, they were all talking about how they worked together, all interlinked, sharing information and much more, in order to get the whole job done. Everyone is working to the same end and it felt as if there are no silos where essential information was being held apart from everyone else.

Silos lead to duplication of effort. If someone is holding information to themselves, and you need it, you don’t know they have it and you have to start from scratch to gather it. Silos cause distrust. If I find out you had the information I needed all along I wonder what you’re trying to hide. Silos cause damage and waste. They prohibit joined up thinking, prevent diversity of experience and opinion, stymie progress, creativity and innovation. Not to mention result in projects that cost more and take longer to deliver and disempower talented people.

Organisations appear to me to be full of silos. I don’t suppose that’s really surprising. When they are big and unwieldy, what seems like a new, innovative idea gets built over here, without anyone checking to see whether it already exists over there. Much as I hate to admit it there are very few entirely original ideas. Most are variations on a theme, so the chances are that what you come up with in your part of an organisation has probably been thought of in at least one other part. Instead of reinventing the wheel think what could be achieved if you looked outside of your silo to see who else was thinking your way and joined forces to improve the original and spread the information, process, practice wider.

We desperately need to break down the silos wherever we are, look for people with the same goals and objectives to collaborate with, get the joined up thinking firing on all cylinders and build something better. That was happening yesterday in Stevenage. Small businesses were in the room with the local authority, the county council, the big aerospace, health, biotech and pharma businesses, the catalyst and catapult leaders and the help and support organisations. They all want one thing, to make Stevenage a better place for people to live and work.

There’s energy. The creative sparks are flying. There’s commitment. The sleeves have been rolled up. Crucially there is one thing missing. Egos. Those were left in the car park or at the train station. Forces have been joined and the silos smashed. This will work.