Make silos your friend

Make silos your friend

Nature tells us that large organisations will form “silos” – where different departments fail to interact with other divisions of the business – which will put a strain on internal cohesion. Rather than fight nature we should make silos our friend.

Our brain size drives the size of group in which we gain our sense of identity. For humans, this group is around 150. Robin Dunbar from Oxford has found a correlation between brain size and the size group to which social species belong. This correlation says that humans, being brainy, connect in groups of around 150. Chimps are quite brainy, but not as brainy as us and live in groups averaging around 55. Smaller brain primates such as gorillas and various monkey species live in small groups. They aren’t brainy enough to handle the political complexity of big groups.

This natural group size has implications for both small and larger organisations.

As small-to-medium organisations grow, say to around 80 people, the old hands start saying, “It’s not as friendly as it used to be”. Or the founder might comment with surprise, “I just saw a staff member in the corridor that I don’t know. When did they join?” The firm is reaching the natural threshold. The founder finds they can no longer get their hands around what everyone is doing. They now need to appoint a new level of management and they need systems and processes to keep in touch with winning and delivery work. “Clan” needs to be your friend rather than a reason for dysfunction and constraint.

In large organisations people will gain a sense of identity with their department or division, not the whole organisation. We are simply lost in being one of 2,000 or 20,000 plus people. So the action is to design your organisation around groups of up to 150. Encourage a sense of group identity with that group. Clan leaders need to be held accountable for the culture, engagement and outputs of their group. But top leaders also need to track for and quash any destructive inter-clan behaviour. It’s not a question that clans won’t form. Organisation design is about what clanning behaviour you would prefer.

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