On getting out of your silo

We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.
— Daniel Kahneman, Author, 'Thinking, Fast and Slow'

Human beings prefer what they know. We are naturally change-averse, and especially in an organizational context. We’ve all seen and felt it. When difference bubbles up, many of us go into turf-protection mode. We are unable to listen, ideate, or respond to that difference without implicit (or explicit!) speechmaking designed to shut down new information. Even if we know that what we know is not worth protecting. Even if the status quo doesn’t work anymore, we cling to it. We get very attached to our own view of reality—so much so that we lose all other colours.

At the Regional Enterprise Networks' working session on systems change in Digby, Nova Scotia last fall, our opening remarks focused on how to show up. If we’re going to approach difference differently—in the interest of different (better!) results—how should we fend-off the shut-down of our automatic turf protection mode?


From the industry leaders at Forbes Magazine and Entrepreneur to not-for-profit changemakers at Forced Migration Review, warnings of silos run amok are everywhere. Silos block innovation! Silos block new ideas. Turf protection keeps new things and new results small. In every avenue of work and justice, an endless array of academics, business leaders, and pundits speculate on how we can resist our natural aversion for a new lens.

“Every established order tends to make its own entirely arbitrary system seem entirely natural.” —Pierre Bourdieu

“When people don’t live and breathe each other’s workflows, understanding the decisions they make is hard. And if you don’t understand the reason for someone’s decisions, distrust can creep in. Functional silos that rely on too much process serve as fertile ground for distrust in relationships…” —Rian van der Merwe, Smashing Magazine

Occasionally, individuals can imagine a different way of organizing our world, particularly if they have become an insider-outsider by jumping across boundaries.”  ―Gillian Tett

As Tim noted in the room at Digby: “I’m not asking you to surrender your uncertainty, or to not look after your own (project, team, community). But everybody in this room has a piece of the puzzle. None of us have the whole truth. We need to create the conditions for all the people to see the bigger picture and make smarter choices about where to go from here.”

Sometimes, it’s the drawing of boundaries around place, team, or company. As Tuesday explains, we self-isolate by drawing boundaries around what we perceive to be a hopeless deficiency of understanding. “Turf-protection can be one of specialness—I’m the only person like this. No one else can understand my conditions/context. We can’t possibly collaborate with people who don’t understand our difference. So we hunker down, and the effect is the same. We are ultimately unwilling to see what we can get done together.”

Step one: don’t believe for one minute you have a handle on the truth. To see more colour, add to what you know.