Fiefdoms, factions, and silos
Overcoming the fragmentation of "we" into "us" and "them"
“Every culture has a shared pattern of thinking. It is the cement that holds a culture together, gives it unity. A culture’s characteristic way of thinking is embedded in its concept of the nature of reality, its world view.” — Russ Ackoff
There’s something powerful about the metaphor of culture as cement. Both hold things together, and both get stronger at doing so with the passage of time.
Unaddressed, this creates a kind of cultural rigidity that I first encountered in client organisations in the late 1980’s — whilst working at the open innovation lab Cambridge Consultants (CC).
New clients often approached CC with a characteristic challenge. A competitor or new entrant had launched a product or service that was eating into the client’s market, and they needed to innovate fast.
But the client organisation wasn’t able to do anything particularly fast.
Their culture had become progressively more rigid, and it typically took two years or more to do what they now needed to do within nine months.
At CC, we not only helped clients acquire, integrate, and employ the technologies they now needed to compete — in physics, engineering, biotech, digital, control, software, etc. — we also helped them become more joined-up and fleet of foot.
The fragmentation problem
At the level of day-to-day experience, people encounter “culture” as “the way we do things round here”.
Note that the lived experience of “we” and the “round here” can change multiple times in a single day.
Sometimes, “we” is the self plus one other person.
Sometimes, “we” includes several of “us” — e.g. fellow team members, people in the same department, function, or location, the people in the current meeting, Zoom call, breakout room, etc.
Occasionally, “we” includes the whole organisation — for example when talking about it to someone who doesn’t work here.
Organisational fragmentation begins when the lived experience of “we” and “around here” becomes so localised that it’s hard for “us” to work with other parts of the organisation — i.e. with “them”.
As these fragmentary “us” and “them” attitudes emerge, they reduce cooperation, coordination, and collaboration between different parts of the same organisation.
Fiefdoms, factions, and silos emerge and strengthen over time — each with its own subculture that experiences “us” as different, often very different, to “them”.
It’s relatively easy to pick this up in conversations — colleagues in other parts of the organisation are described in various negative ways, such as unprofessional, incompetent, untrustworthy — or worse.
I’ve often found that organisations with Marketing, R&D, and Manufacturing functions — or close equivalents like Sales, Creative, and Operations — hold less than generous views about each other:
Marketing regard themselves as business builders; but their R&D colleagues see them as bullshit merchants, promising customers the impossible; while Manufacturing see them as party animals living it up on company expenses;
R&D see themselves as innovators, securing the organisation’s future; but Marketing see them as overgrown school kids playing with their tech toys; while Manufacturing see them as impractical boffins;
Manufacturing see themselves as champions of quality; whereas Marketing see them as order fillers (and slow ones at that); and R&D see them as risk-averse Luddites (who’d still be using steam-power if they could get away with it).
As Russ Ackoff points out in the opening quote above:
“Every culture has a shared pattern of thinking. It is the cement that holds a culture together, gives it unity. A culture’s characteristic way of thinking is embedded in its concept of the nature of reality, its world view.”
Fragmentation occurs when the shared pattern of thinking in one area generates local unity at the expense of experiencing unity as part of the whole organisation.
These fragmentary forces are amplified by the way organisations are managed and measured. Individual unit heads are evaluated based on the performance in their area, irrespective of whether maximising local performance is to the detriment of the organisation as a whole.
These forces are further intensified when explicit and implicit incentives encourage the heads of different units to compete with each other for resources, raises, bonuses, promotions, etc.
It’s hardly surprising that in the absence of a deeper appreciation of the importance of coherent organisation-wide value creation, “we” fragment into “us” & “them” fiefdoms, factions, and silos, and the inevitable associated turf wars.
To quote Ackoff again: “A culture’s characteristic way of thinking is embedded in its concept of the nature of reality, its world view.”
And as the nature of that reality becomes increasingly uncertain and unpredictable, the characteristic way of thinking must ensure that sense making, decision making, and action taking are well joined-up, dynamically iterated, deeply embedded, and widely distributed in the organisation.
Doing more of what doesn’t work
Organisations have a long established, deeply ingrained habit of approaching such challenges by restructuring and/or tinkering with extrinsic rewards.
However, this simply substitutes one fragmented bunch of fiefdoms, factions, and silos for another.
Or, recognising the need for innovation, agility, and adaptiveness, they appoint someone to head up the area.
But Chief Innovation Officers, Heads of Agility, or Adaptiveness Tsars often struggle to make a systemic impact on the organisational culture.
Such roles can have a significant impact — when they’re at the most senior executive level. But they’re often positioned one or more levels down in the hierarchy where they lack systemic influence.
As a result, these functions can ironically become another fiefdom, faction, or silo — further inhibiting adoption of the very mindsets, attitudes, and behaviours they’re intended to cultivate.
Organisations similarly shoot themselves in the foot when they attempt to shift their cultures through bolt-on fixes like innovation skunkworks, digital platforms, and partnerships with creative agencies.
These all undermine the cultivation of collective sense making, decision making, and action taking amongst the people within the organisation, who therefore fail to build the future-fit muscles they need in order to explore, experiment with, and exploit new ways of creating new value.
That’s not to say changes to structures and metrics aren’t required — they’re often vital. But these aleays work best when they emerge as outputs from improved ways of working together, not as inputs to try and make improvements happen.
Focusing for maximum leverage
The world views that Ackoff highlights are, like all aspects of organisational culture, ultimately rooted in people’s mindsets.
That’s where the awareness of “the way we do things round here” resides, and it’s where to focus to achieve maximum leverage for systemic culture change.
Traditionally, in a world view that featured high levels of certainty and predictability, culture was seen in terms of conformance, stability, and fit.
The idea of cultural fit still dominates the organisational landscape, as does the associated legacy top down command & control approach to leadership.
Shifting this deeply embedded legacy is challenging, but becomes much easier when culture is seen as the prevailing system of mindsets that forms and informs people’s awareness of “the way we do things round here.”
Seeing culture as system of mindsets enables you to focus on the few key influencers, not always in the most senior positions, and always unique to each organisation, whose mindsets offer maximum systemic leverage for culture change.
Focusing on key influencer mindsets is the low risk, high leverage way to overcome fragmentation and to create cultural fitness — of innovation, agility, adaptiveness, and entrepreneurialism based on 2D3D mindsets.
Questions for reflection
Where’s the greatest need to reduce fragmentation between existing fiefdoms, factions, and silos in your organisation?
Who do you see as the key influencers whose mindsets, and therefore attitudes and behaviours, systemically feed the current forces of fragmentation?
To what degree is this fragmentation furthered by the Five Fatal Habits that have consistently thwarted efforts to create future-fit entrepreneurial cultures over the past 40 years?
Russell L. Ackoff “Re-Creating the Corporation” (1999) p. 4.
Technically speaking, by cement Ackoff actually means mortar or concrete. There’s a fascinating article in Interesting Engineering about how Roman concrete has gained strength over millennia, especially in marine environments.
I joined Cambridge Consultants in 1983 as a digital systems engineer, ran various technology projects, and led the Digital Systems Group before moving into consulting.
This four-minute video describes such perspectives further.
For example, Purchasing may select a lower cost provider of spare parts that improves their local P&L but exports problems, headaches, and a worse P&L to Maintenance who now have to replace the inferior spare parts more frequently. This is bad for the organisation overall, but may well suit the Head of Purchasing, particularly if she or he is competing with the Head of Maintenance for promotion, largely based on their respective P&L results…
I’ve written previously about how appointing a “Head of <x>” — where <x> is a complex, systemic challenge that requires organisation-wide culture change — invariably impedes progress. See “Get a head and fall behind”.
See the previous article “Leverage for systemic change”.
See the previous article “Seeing culture”.
See the previous article “Focus on key influencers”.
This six-minute video provides an overview of the 2D3D mindset.
Download the 22-page report on The Five Fatal Habits here.