Enough of silos? How about slabs?

22 October 2015

You know about silos, those vertical cylinders that keep people apart from each other in organizations—producers from engineers, doctors from nurses, staff in the Quebec Division from those in Alberta. In fact you have probably heard more than enough about these silos. 

Well, how about slabs? You know them too, if not by that name. In one Czech company, people talked about the executives on the top floor of their small building as some kind of inner sanctum, isolated from everyone else.

Women have long complained about the “glass ceilings” that keep them from advancing up the hierarchy. This is one kind of slab; many others, often literally made of concrete, serve as horizontal barriers to the free flow of information up the hierarchy (if not down).[1] 

I developed a CoachingOurselves topic called “Silos and Slabs in Organizations”. (CoachingOurselves.com is our training company that enables managers to develop themselves in small groups in their own workplace.) Once, when I used it with the senior management of a bank, they concluded that silos were the problem, not slabs. “You might want to ask some people on a slab or two below you,” I suggested.

We need silos for the sake of specialization in our organizations, just not ones with impenetrable walls. To use another metaphor, it’s not seamlessness we need in our organizations but good seams: tailored connections between the silos. But do we need slabs between levels of authority? For example, must the CEO, COO, CFO, and CLO, etc. all sit in their own place?

A cardinal rule of management development programs is that different levels of managers must not be mixed. Keep the CEOs with CEOs, middle managers with middle managers, and so on. Why? For the sake of status? Executives already spend much of their time with peers; they need to tap into the thinking of other kinds of managers. How about a little mingling, all you C_ Os? You might get an earful from someone in another organization who can open up to you. 

Or how about coming down from your tower, and putting your desk next to people with a different perspective on your own organization? Kao, a Japanese manufacturer of personal care and other products, became famous for running its meetings in open spaces and allowing anyone going by to join: a foreman at the executive committee, an executive at a factory meeting. Semco, a Brazilian company, reported keeping two seats at board of directors meetings open for workers.

It’s easy to bust the slabs when you realize that they are mere figments of our lack of imagination.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015. HM is a founding partner of CoachingOurselves.com and the author of 22 of its 80 developmental topics, including “Crafting Strategy”, “Simply Managing”, and “Developing our Organization as a Community.”

To download part of Henry's Silos and Slabs CoachingOurselves module click here.

[1] Years ago, the Sears retail chain moved out of the Sears Tower, then the tallest building in the world. The CEO said that “We had become a vertical culture.”  It is quite interesting how people will happily walk long distances horizontally before they climb even one flight of stairs.