The Silo Effect

The Silo Effect

August 2015

Gillian Tett

The brilliant and insightful new book from Gillian Tett, author of the bestselling Fool's Gold.

Ever since civilised society began, we have felt the need to classify, categorise and specialise. It can make things more efficient, and help give the leaders of any organisation a sense of confidence that they have the right people focusing on the right tasks. But it can also be catastrophic, leading to unnecessary internal competition and a resistance to sharing new ideas. Most importantly it can lead to a structural haze, with the full picture of where an organization is heading hidden from view. It is incredibly widespread: the chances are these 'silos' are rife in any organisation that features in your life, whether your business, or your local school or hospital.

Across industries and cultures, as this brilliant and penetrating books shows, these silos have the power to collapse companies and destabilize financial markets, yet they still dominate the workplace. They blind and confuse us, often making modern institutions collectively act in risky, silly, and damaging ways.

Gillian Tett has spent years covering financial markets and business, but she's also a trained anthropologist, having completed a doctorate at Cambridge University and conducted field work in Tibet and Tajikistan. She's no stranger to questioning the assumptions and practices of a culture. Those in question - financial trading desks, urban police forces, surgical teams within medical clinics, software debuggers and consumer product engineers - have practices and rituals as ordered and intricate as those of any far-flung tribe.

In The Silo Effect, she uses an anthropological lens to explore how individuals, teams and whole organizations often work in silos of thought, process and product. With examples drawn from a range of fascinating areas from the New York Fire Department and Facebook to the Bank of England and Sony, these narratives illustrate not just how foolishly people can behave when they are mastered by silos but also how the brightest institutions and individuals can master them. The Silo Effect is a sharp, visionary and inspiring work with the insight, prescriptions and power to remove our organisational blinders and transform the way we think for the better.

Read these exclusive extracts from The Silo Effect - and pre-order the book here

Extract One 'Why switching careers can change the way you think'


In the first half of the book, I explained how humans tend to organize the world around them into mental, social, and organizational boxes, which can often turn into specialist silos. When these are rigid, they often cause people to behave in foolish or damaging ways; silos can make people blind to opportunity and dangerously unaware of risks. However, in the second half of the book I want to look not at the problem of silos—but some potential solutions to problems created by this silo effect. Some of these responses involve big strategies to change the culture of institutions or structure of groups. But before looking at institutions, it pays to think about individuals. After all, institutions are just gigantic collections of people and one of the most basic steps that we can make to fight the risks of silos starts not with a leadership committee or organizational chart or grand strategy plan, but inside our heads.

The anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu used the experience of immersing himself in a different culture to get a new perspective on life. Plunging into another world not only enabled him to understand a different society, but also to look afresh at his own. That carries a wider lesson, namely that when we become insider-outsiders,like Bourdieu, and dare to jump across borders, we can escape from the prison of the classification systems that we inherit. This can break down tunnel vision and give us a powerful new insight on the cultural patterns that shape us, including those patterns that we usually barely notice. However, this point does not apply solely to anthropologists. Anybody who is willing to jump out of their silo and break down some boundaries in their own lives in unexpected ways can gain a new vision. Sometimes this produces immediate benefits, in the sense of inspiring innovations. Sometimes it takes years before the advantages appear.

Take Steve Jobs. When he was at university, at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, he dropped out of his formal studies. However, he continued to hang around the campus and dipped into creative classes, including a course on Japanese calligraphy. At the time, it seemed to lack immediate benefit. But years later, when he was creating his designs for Apple computers, Jobs realized that he had created his winning designs by blending his training in information technology with the seemingly unconnected skills he had learned with Japanese brushstrokes. “If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced font,” Jobs told students at Stanford University.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” Jobs concluded, urging his students to take risks and “trust that that the dots will somehow connectin your future.” Or to put it another way, breaking down silos can spark innovation in unexpected ways. If people are willing to take risks by crossing boundaries in their own personal lives, this can deliver unexpected benefits.