[things I came across] RE:Silos and communication within organisation

want to update / resume this series http://proses.id/problem-solving-challenge/

Maybe I’m discrediting myself but I consider of the most high leverage things I’ve done, the hard part was wrangling all the people to talk to one another and documenting.

Is “breaking down silos” just talking to people?

Why I hate the phrase “breaking down silos” – charity.wtf https://charity.wtf/2021/08/27/why-i-hate-the-phrase-breaking-down-silos/

When asked, people who have done the hard labor of building better organizations with healthy communication flows, less inefficiency, and alignment around a single mission — people who have gotten all the people rowing in the same direction — tend to talk about the work.

People who haven’t, say they were “breaking down silos.”

// I see how this could be problematic. Glad I don’t see much or deal with these people.

Jade Rubick – How to build silos and decrease collaboration (on purpose)


In general, you should aim to maximize collaboration within teams, and minimize collaboration between teams.

A collaborative team works together on one or two goals. This maximizes shared state — everyone has a common understanding of goals, progress, and who is doing what. This gives team members a better ability to focus and coordinate their work with each other. Team members have overlapping areas of knowledge, so they can critique each other’s work and help each other grow.

Bezos structured Amazon so that teams were as independent as possible.

Silos are boundaries between groups of people, based on the organizational structure and teams they’re working on. Silos exist because humans have cognitive and communication limits.

You’re moving the constraints around, not eliminating them completely. You need to operate in a way that recognizes these limits.

“Breaking down silos” is an exhortation rather than a diagnosis or prescription of how to improve the situation. “Breaking down silos” blames individuals for not having a big enough vision and working across boundaries, instead of looking with curiosity at the system and asking why they are doing what they’re doing. It’s expecting people to have your level of perspective without figuring out why they don’t.

Communication != Collaboration != Coordination

When you hear people say they want teams to collaborate more or break down silos, I encourage you to look at the problem from three perspectives:


Usually when people talk about collaboration, what they’re really looking for is better coordination.

Coordination is “the harmonious functioning of parts for effective results” (Merriam-Webster)

The US military found that the best way to coordinate groups of people quickly and effectively was to centralize coordination and decentralize decision-making and execution.

You want local groups to be able to act independently and have what they need to be successful. You want centralized functions to set high level objectives and coordinate where necessary to produce the right outcomes.


  1. Ask people how they are getting information today.
  2. Find out what information people actually need.
  3. Design the lightest weight version of this you can imagine.


A team that has to collaborate to achieve its objectives is going to be less reliably successful. In general, teams shouldn’t be collaborating with more than a couple of teams, unless they’re explicitly set up to be that way. For example, in some organizations you might set up the design team as a “service” organization which provides design for a larger organization.

intentional silos
deliberate silos
designed silos
mindful silos


Page 82

It is essential that our philosophy of command support the way we fight. First and foremost, in order to generate the tempo of operations we desire and to best cope with the uncertainty, disorder, and fluidity of combat, command and control must be decentralized.

That is, subordinate commanders must make decisions on their own initiative, based on their understanding of their senior’s intent, rather than passing information up the chain of command and waiting for the decision to be passed down. Further, a competent subordinate commander who is at the point of decision will naturally better appreciate the true situation than a senior commander some distance removed. Individual initiative and responsibility are of paramount importance.

We do not need better leaders and better processes. These are nice-to-haves, but are not game-changers. We need better systems who do not need better leaders and better processes.

Human Performance in Uncertain Environments, by Laura Maguire

Human Performance in Uncertain Environments, by Laura Maguire

Coordination is key.

The multiple goals of the work system go hand-in-hand with another aspect that makes forecasting work hard: the need to coordinate across a distributed network.The coordination may be so others can provide information (like when a team calls in the results of their control work), to adjust their actions (say, changing the pick up location with the cat driver), to provide approvals, or to or, communicate to public and other impacted users.Well-coordinated groups run smoothly – minimizing downtime or unnecessary risk – and help to proactively identify issues. Coordination breakdowns increase the cognitive work by introducing lag or requiring more effort to determine what others are doing and how that may impact your plans.

Job interview: “algorithms”

Reality: “Turn a 127 message deep slack thread between 5 engineers into a decision”

Alignment is quite challenging. Probably not “just talking to people” any more than shipping software is “writing code in a text editor”.

“Thanks, I did finish college 7 years ago. Red-Black Trees work by obtaining management buy-in.”


Also, include the emails, doc comments, and the facial expression your boss made when you said that one part you care the most about.

what’s hard about problem solving

Probably the most important skill you can have is the ability to get a big group of people to agree to working on the same thing for a prolonged period of time.

The second most important skill is coordinating the effort of all those you convinced so that it scales well with the number of people.

To some extent, we all harbor this conceit that we alone could do something really amazing. But all the most impressive stuff is accomplished through some monumental coordination of talent and labor. Organizations are the best technology we’ve invented as humans.

I think that’s why we’re so frustrated when a big group of people can’t make progress on a problem, even if they all care about it. We’ve seen groups of people succeed in other contexts. Why is the effort of this specific group of people not coordinated and scaling well?

I’ve always wondered why Herbert Simon (who I’ve idolized since before grad school) spent so much time studying organizations. I took two org theory courses but never saw their usefulness. I totally get it now. This is a huge revelation for me. I wonder if he saw it all along.

I want to provide a usable implication of this worldview for people working on something right now: The most impactful thing you can do today is ensure that it’s desirable and easy for others to build on top of your work. To see why you’re doing it and join you in working on it.

— the replies —

and empathy and ability to listen, and compromise. And persistence. Lots and lots of repetition and persistence. And repetition.

Step 1: get them to agree on what “the same thing” actually is.
Step 2: get them to define what everyone’s role is.
Step 3: get them to work on it

How about inspiring many independent people and groups who can act on that thing within their own organizations?

Without a budget and with a drop-dead timeline? Challenge accepted.

This is the reason religions exist.

Now imagine if the people have differing agendas.

I feel like “organizing people” is undervalued compared to “building things.” Same goes for data-driven decision making. The common theme is that those skills are hard to measure.


documentation culture vs meeting culture

Do you have a documentation culture or a meeting culture?

Documentation culture – we talk and collaborate in docs. Why have a meeting? // sync on timeline, cadence, checkpoints.

Meeting culture – we have documents, but we have to have meetings to get people to read/engage them.

(me) Mainly meeting culture, too chaotic and busy with the tactical to maintain documentation culture enough to tip it over.

Meeting culture mostly. Ive found its hard to get folks to read/give feedback without that formal slot. I think part of it is folks enjoy their flow so delay tasks like and it can be unclear what the value of doc is, which is one for the requestor to think about for engagement

We have meetings to prepare for meetings to prepare for meetings. There’s doc around, but nobody has time to maintain it because of all the meetings. So read it at your own risk.

No, see, made a doc but we need a meeting to discuss the doc. Then we might update the doc, or have that as an action item for the next meeting. I so wish I was making this up.

Being global remote, we’re heavily in the async / documentation culture camp, though no hard rules. Many of our meetings are recorded so folks can engage async and revisit / reference content. I love it.

I’ve been in both, and I prefer meeting culture, despite its warts. Document culture has certain aspects that trend towards infinity. Infinite collaborators who can comment. Infinite time potentially being spent on reading docs. But I probably haven’t seen it done super well.

Meeting culture with the agenda being filled out in a panic 5 minutes before the kick off time, even though at the top of the agenda it says the regular meeting will be cancelled if no agenda items by the day before.

We are 100% a doc centric culture because we are fully distributed. BUT … when we get together brainstorming is 10x better. So we try as much as possible to brainstorm in no real time.

Often found that the best mix is both: docs for exploration and proposal w/ asynchronous feedback, meetings for discussing issues that can’t be resolved asynchronously. I also treat docs as largely throw away – they have value at a point in time but quickly become an artifact.

Accessible documentation helps participants get to the same page before a meeting starts

military, c&c

People in the military have to solve wicked problems, in super high pressure, contested environments, under ridiculous constraints. Often while other people are trying to kill them. But the perception is that the military is all about blindly following orders. Why is this?

— the replies —

2 reasons I think; simplistic media portrayal of the military, and majority of veterans (at least in US) served in lower enlisted ranks where the environment is more directive. IMO, anyway….

My experience of being a private in the army was that it was all about following orders, unquestioningly. I guess it’s different for officers, special forces etc.

This is true. I think it’s also interesting that the orders tend to have more “space” in them as that trust increases. I.e. they move more from “Do this” to “We need this to happen, figure it out”

Bluntly, all the people I know who joined the military from school were those who wanted defined structure & explicit instruction. Most (but not all) of the people I met who’d left the military expected to give orders and have them blindly followed. Obviously personal bias here!

Yeah that’s fair. One of the reasons I left the military was a bit too much of that, and not enough of the egalitarian problem solving. The latter tends to happen more on operations though.

yup. And I’m sure I’ve had plenty of great colleagues who never mentioned they were ex-forces. But the ones who were terrible certainly made it obvious!

Most of the orders I got on ops were more “commanders intent”

For example during planning/prep, the USCG is very democratic. But it switches to more traditional hierarchy during actions. (Same for many soe ial forces?).

I have a few (actually a lot) of thoughts on this. A couple of excerpts from a recent govt project on the opportunities and pressures the rate of change in the tech ecosystems affords. I’d welcome your perspective on this!

Cynefin talks about this extensively: when we move from the complex to the chaotic domain, C&C take over.

It does, and is used in military both strategically and tactically. But I would be very cautious about bringing over military methods into industry. Its more about understanding WHY the military model works then applying those principles in a different context.

100% agree. I think it’s much more important to consider how the principles at work. They lead to certain emergent practice in the military, and other, perhaps overlapping practice elsewhere. Trying to apply military concepts at the practice level is a big mistake.

Copying what others are doing without understanding context / constraints is cargo culting. Just look at the (not) Spotify model – that was a point in time snapshot in 2014 in a tiny startup company learning to scale with a single product.

The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s precisely because the decisions they have to make are so hard and complex at the most operational level that they need to outsource strategic thinking upwards. AKA „blindly following orders“

This is a GREAT point! One small adjustment to what I’d make here: In good military contexts, it’s actually the constraint setting you outsource upwards. Commanders set the constraints and the boundaries within which subordinates are empowered to operate.

Great adjustment! It‘s operative constraints indeed.

Enabling constraints vs governing constraints.

Because it’s too organisations. It’s hierarchical in camp, on operations it’s more agile. The real arguement is does it need to compete for that land in the first place? They’re usually fighting when they shouldn’t be. Ideas compete, people should collaborate.

“Orders” are more like “Objectives”. (i.e. “the What”, not “the How”). Otherwise, It is “Doctrine” that guides strategy and “Your Training” that guides execution…..not a lot of time to “think” in battle!

What is striking, though, reading anything about network centred warfare, decentralised command, OODA loops etc, is how good the military are at operationalising initiative-taking.

We got the recruitment, training, logistics and deployment down to a clear repeatable process (this is the bit civilians see) but that allowed us to focus on “enabling constraints” aka the orders process, to deal with complexity/chaos (this bit most people don’t see).

It’s because the problems they “have to solve” are overwhelmingly the ones they have been ordered to solve.

No idea. Married to ex-submariner Chief Petty Officer – an amazing agile flexible emotionally intelligent multi-dimensional thinker, doer, engineer & leader. Who served in constant “at alert” status throughout 25 yr Cold War service from age 16. Towering intellect & nobody’s fool

I think you need to look at in two ways, non war time and war time. Non war time it seems very structured – do as you are told. War time, here the objectives and goals – go execute. Can’t remember the Agile speaker, that I heard talking about this exact point.

Great question. The answer is simple: perception often does not include thinking.

Setting aside the matter of whether wicked problems can be ‘solved’, people in military work in rigid hierarchical structures with an annual appraisal and reward model based on ‘following orders’. Why do you imagine outcomes would be any different?

I guess you can be solving wicked hard problems under pressure and still be following orders. You don’t get to choose whether or where you get deployed for example (I’m just guessing here).

// trained / drilled it into you that you can’t go wrong, everything became automatic and second nature

Team of Teams

When they understood the whole picture, they began to trust colleagues.”

McChrystal implemented a profound shift from a need-to-know mindset to a culture of information sharing. “The problem is that the logic ‘need to know’ depends on the assumption that somebody… actually knows who does and does not need to know which material… Our experience showed us this was never the case… Functioning safely in an interdependent environment requires that every team possess a holistic understanding of the interaction between all the moving parts. Everyone has to see the system in its entirety for the plan to work… We did not want all the teams to become generalists—SEALs are better at what they do than intel analysts would be and vice versa. Diverse specialized abilities are essential. We wanted to fuse generalized awareness with specialized expertise… We dubbed this goal—this state of emergent, adaptive organizational intelligence—shared consciousness, and it became the cornerstone of our transformation.”

“Trust and purpose are inefficient: getting to know your colleagues intimately and acquiring a whole-system overview are big time sinks; the sharing of responsibilities generates redundancy. But this overlap and redundancy—these inefficiencies—are precisely what imbues teams with high-level adaptability and efficacy. Great teams are less like ‘awesome machines’ than awesome organisms.”

“The costs of micromanagement are increasing… I began to reconsider the nature of my role as a leader. The wait for my approval was not resulting in any better decisions, and our priority should be reaching the best possible decision that could be made in a time frame that allowed it to be relevant… I communicated across the command my thought process on decisions like airstrikes, and told them to make the call… Decisions came more quickly, critical in a fight where speed was essential to capturing enemies and preventing attacks. More important, and more surprising, we found that, even as speed increased and we pushed authority down further, the quality of decisions actually went up.”

The results were impressive. Under the old structure, there were 10 to 18 raids per month. “By 2006, under the new system, this figure skyrocketed to 300. With minimal increases in personnel and funding, we were running 17 times faster. And these raids were more successful. We were finding a higher percentage of our targets, due in large part to the fact that we were finally moving as fast as AQI, but also because of the increased quality of decision making.”

“The term empowerment gets thrown around a great deal in the management world, but the truth is that simply taking off constraints is a dangerous move. It should be done only if the recipients of newfound authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely.” In other words, “Empowered execution without shared consciousness is dangerous.”

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