The Myth of Silos, Fences, and Boundaries

A great teacher once asked me to take 15 minutes and make a list of all the things I am ignoring in my life. I did it: the list included a basket of mending, a rude neighbor, and the funny noise my car made when I went over 50 mph. Then I read the list to him and he asked, “How can you say you are ignoring those things if you are able to write them on a list and tell me about them?”

Point taken: there is no such thing as “ignoring” anything because ignoring is an active task that must be maintained over time. We cannot simply use our willpower to put something out of mind.

A former client contacted me recently to say that a whole division in her company was being moved to another location. “The problem of communicating across silos,” she said, “is going to get even worse.”

I had lunch recently with someone – a smart and fast-thinking guy who does excellent work – who explained the problems he has with certain incompetent people at work. “They don’t understand management or technology,” he said, “and they slow things down. Now I just I fence them off.”

A project manager told me at a meeting he believed setting boundaries on what a project should and should not include was his most important job. “Otherwise,” he insisted, “we can’t plan for the project schedule and budget.”

My question: Why do we talk about silos, fences, and boundaries? What we are really talking about is creating effective ways to relate to others in different circumstances, isn’t it?

  • Silos are gaps we may need to bridge with agreements for how, when, and why to communicate. Even if people move to another location, we can still communicate across distances these days, right? It just takes some care and attention to design the necessary communications. That was always true, but we sometimes forget to honor our responsibility for productive communication when we get to see people at the coffee machine every day.
  • Fences are artificial constructs – there is no fence around that incompetent manager. But isn’t our “bypass” actually an agreement that we’re not going to follow protocols? The manager knows how and when to expect to hear from you, so you actually have an agreement, not a fence.
  • Boundaries also emphasize the separation rather than the connection between groups. Project scope is always defined in terms of which relationships are needed to bring in a successful end result. We know we need to build bridges of communications and agreements with some people or groups in order to reach a goal. But identifying a “boundary” around those people focuses attention on what will not get done rather than what we do intend to produce.

The stories we tell ourselves about how we are connected or disconnected to others are interesting, but not always very useful. What’s useful is to notice which connections we need, and to upgrade them for the objectives at hand. It’s also useful to notice what connections we are “stuck with”, and find a workable agreement for what, when, and why to communicate. If you feel better calling some of those agreements a silo, fence, or boundary, that’s fine.

But remember, that’s just you pretending to ignore an existing connection. Just because you’re not working to fix that funny noise in your car does not mean it isn’t there.

2 replies
  1. David Sapper
    David Sapper says:

    Yes, I concur. It is very helpful to take a look at our silo-laden language and consider, so what? I love how you describe silos as “gaps we need to bridge with agreements.” This perspective will help me answer the so what, when working within our organization. Thank you.

  2. Laurie Ford
    Laurie Ford says:

    The gaps are always so interesting, aren’t they? A little more attention to the bridges would be useful. Thanks for your comment.

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