Goldfish, borders and transformation: how to move beyond organisational silos

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Do we behave like goldfish, stuck in out own organisational silos?

My goldfish grew too big for their tank. One listless waft of a tail was enough to propel them from one end to the other. So my parents bought a bigger one. It was a sudden, practical act of kindness.

The new tank was twice as long as the old one, but it took my goldfish a while to adjust. For days they would swim halfway and then turn back, as if the wall of the old tank was still there. It was like they didn’t get the memo. Halfway and back, halfway and back, halfway and back.

They eventually reached the outer limit of their expanded territory, but only by a series of accidental increments. Fish are notoriously bad at retaining information, but their muscle memory is evidently good. Either that or they are reluctant explorers, slow to embrace enhanced freedom and possibilities.

My goldfish were stakeholders in a transformation project. Radical change was imposed upon them from the outside. Viewed dispassionately the change was entirely positive; better conditions and no reduction in headcount. It was the opposite of downsizing. But the fish weren’t sure they liked it, so they continued behaving as they had in their previous, more constrained existence. To us the old tank looked like an outmoded silo. To the fish it felt like a comfort zone.

The brightest, most optimistic people can behave like goldfish when change is thrust upon them, even if the change is to their benefit, and especially if they don’t get the memo.

Beyond borders

Organisational silos are like countries. They are defined by the borders between them and their neighbours. They are defined by the transactions and trades that take place across those borders. And borders are funny things. In his excellent book, Off The Map, Alastair Bonnett ruminates on the subtlety and nuance of border effects:

“Borders are about claims to land, but as soon as you draw one you limit yourself. Every border is also an act of denial, an acknowledgement of another’s rights… Borders have a far more ambivalent and complex relationship to territory; they combine both arrogance and modesty, both demand and denial.”

We don’t experience the full extent of border effects when we fly into a foreign country. Passport control in an airport is a sterile, one-dimensional border crossing experience. Most often it is a formality.

Try crossing between former Soviet countries on foot or in a vehicle, however. These borders are arbitrary lines in the sand, literally so. Distant and detached, the powers that be drew straight lines in the desert with scant regard for those affected on the ground. These borders cleave families, tribes, supply chains in two. They were a sudden political act, and no one got the memo.

In these places you can feel the confluence of arrogance and modesty. You are viscerally aware of the conflicting forces of demand and denial. It is thrilling in ways that passing through airport immigration will never be.

However, it is far from thrilling for the locals. Crossing back and forth on a daily basis to ply trade or visit extended family is just another part of the Central Asian grind. What the foreign traveler does with cold sweat and tight chest, they do on autopilot. The locals have their version of goldfish style muscle memory.

If you took the borders away there would be a period of goldfish style adjustment. The removal of borders would make life easier, but it would also cause upheaval for the people who profit from their existence; the soldiers, the civil servants, the food sellers, the sole trader currency exchangers. Borders are fertile territory for cottage industry.

Sudden impact

Organisational silos are like countries. People profit from the existence of borders between them.

While silos make no sense in the context of operational efficiency, technological change and market disruption, they do make sense to the people that occupy them. The simple, familiar structure that silos provide is reassuring. At the borders between silos, the corporate equivalent of cottage industries spring up to bypass, compensate for, and profit from the bureaucracy. In so doing they create systemic resistance to change. The new will always make less sense than the old, no matter how sensible it is to change things for the better.

Any transformation project worthy of the name involves organisational upheaval. You can describe your transformation as ‘digital’ if you like, but the most significant and most difficult aspects of the project will be organisational. The technology will be a side show by comparison. Project sponsors should over-commit to communication. Send the memos, where memo is a metaphor for good, frequent communication of all kinds. Memos about project purpose, implications and opportunities afforded should be a permanent fixture at the top of the backlog.

Systems Thinking differentiates between the surface and the substance. For transformation projects the surface is the strategy and the technology. The substance is the corporate muscle memory, the cottage industries and the other unintended human consequences of silo structures. The substance is the goldfish factor.

Successful, sustainable transformation has to be more than a sudden corporate act. In order to leave their silos willingly, and swim in a bigger tank, even the brightest, most optimistic people need to get the memo. The memo about what the change means for them. The memo about how they will be protagonists rather than pawns. The memo about the personal development opportunities that will open up as the silos close down. They can’t get too many memos.

Phil Adams is strategy director at Cello Signal

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