Linking the Silos – Every Organization Has Them

A friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer.   After a raft of tests and probes and lab reports, it became clear that he needed to meet with a specialist.  Then because of the character of his cancer, his physician determined that he actually needed to meet with another specialist – another oncologist, but with a different expertise.   And then because the cancer might have implications for his eyesight, he was sent to an ophthalmologist.  And on it went till he came to a week when he met with five different doctors, each with a different specialty, each with an agenda for what needed to happen to him.  And he had long left behind his personal physician; he was now in the hands of the experts.   Except that it was five different experts each with their own diagnosis and prognosis for him. 

On the one hand, my friend was so grateful for the medical system and for the expertise of each of these individuals.   But each was only viewing his predicament through the lens of their expertise and each was suggesting a course of action.  But as you might imagine, nothing was being coordinated until finally, after multiple visits to each of these doctors, one of them realized what was happening and said the magic words:   “someone needs to “quarterback” this and I might be in the best position to make this happen.”   Perhaps the athletic metaphor is not the best one, but the point is made:  someone needed to coordinate and oversee his treatment and assure that each speciality was heard and was contributing to the outcome but not, in the end, in a way that is independent or autonomous but synchronized towards the well-being and health of my friend. 

Someone needed to link the silos and coordinate his treatment.   

Every organization of any size will have departments and divisions and offices and each will have their own sphere of responsibility.  And sometimes I will have a conversation with a fellow university president and ask:  in your structure where do you locate . . .and ask about a particular department or task that needs to be done.  And there can be quite a bit of variety in how things are structured and located even in relatively similar institutions.   Some kind of structure is needed to get things done; no arrangement is perfect, and so along the way we might move a department over to another division, or we might merge two offices so that now the work is being done within one office rather than two.  But, it is still not perfect.  And it happens:  all too easily, one office or speciality or responsibility can be done in relative isolation with what might be happening down the hall.  And yet, we are on a common mission, a common agenda, and need to have our work coordinated.   

That makes sense except that you still need to have those people in the organization who do what they are responsible for but also think about the system and see the whole picture and listen to the person in front of them and realize that what needs to happen is not precisely in his or her sphere of responsibility, so they walk with that person to where they need to be.  Or, they can contribute to what is needed, but there are others that have to be involved as well, and someone needs to “quarterback” a resolution to this problem or situation or question.  They know to leave their desk and walk down the hall and perhaps drop in on more than one office so that what needs to happen happens.  

These are those who move our offices or departments from being silos towards a coordinated outcome.   And thus, I suggest two things.  When someone does this very well – has lateral vision, sees the big picture and sees what needs to be one . . . empower them to do it, thank them for it, and learn from their experience.   Watch for those whom you serve – in my case, students in an university – who might get caught or even lost between this or that office and not sure what they are supposed to do next.   

The good news:  my friend is on a recovery to full health.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.