Using the Silo Effect to Your Advantage

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Summary:

The silo effect refers to getting “stuck” in a small group with restricted options and a limited vision of the future. Silos are not all bad, though—there are positive aspects to being in a silo—you just need to be aware of their potential effects and realize how to overcome or work within them.

The silo effect, also sometimes called being stovepiped, refers to getting “stuck” in a small, enclosed space with restricted options and a limited vision of the future.

Due to where and how we work, most of us function in silos. Silos can be both good and bad; they are good if we understand that they exist and allow them to provide some context, but bad if we limit ourselves because of groupthink and miss ideas from other silos.

Silos in the Modern Organization

Gillian Tett’s book The Silo Effect shows the dangers of silos in organizations. It resonates with my experiences in software, and it’s worth a look for any long-term software testers.

Silos happen in many companies—not just in software and testing. For example, consider the 2008 financial crash, which the book argues was exacerbated, if not caused, by silos. Groups, companies, and even government entities were so entrenched in their respective processes that they failed to have a system to view the risk of a potential crash. Those involved may have been called the “smartest people in the room,” yet the silos they existed in prevented them from foreseeing what was about to happen.

Silos can be formal or informal. A formal silo could be an organization’s label for its groups of employees, e.g., programmer, tester, business analyst, system manager, etc. An informal silo could be concepts or groups that we subscribe to but really don’t recognize when we are “siloed” by the group. For example, in software testing there are “schools” of testing, accepted “best” practices, independent test teams, and industry standards, to name a few.

There are several positive aspects of silos. They can:

  • Provide a common community of like thinking
  • Support efforts by providing skilled people
  • Establish support networks
  • Aid in communication within the silo
  • Establish creditability for members of the silo

But silos also have negative impacts:

  • Tunnel vision
  • Tribalism (an “us versus them” mentality)
  • Fragmented systems (miscommunication, errors, bad practices, etc.)
  • Trashing ideas without considering whether they have any value in context
  • Becoming blind to risks (in products or groups)
  • Self-fulfilling support groups that turn into negative silos

The first step in dealing with silos is recognizing their potential impacts.

How do silos affect software testing? Here’s my experience.

Testing as a Silo

First, we have the silo of the on-project test group, which is separate from development, support, management, and stakeholders. This may help with “independence,” but it can lead to some of the negative aspects listed above. Projects should not view the separation as “us versus them,” but rather as a collaborative effort. Agile teams are, in part, a reaction to this silo.

Another point is having specialized test/QA departments with unique standards, knowledge, and practices in an organization. The test/QA department can provide some common resources and silo benefits, but this can hurt project teams because the “outside” department requirements can force unneeded actions. Testing, QA, and verification and validation department activities should be integrated with all software activities.

Then there are the so-called “schools” in software testing. Having categories of testing may be useful to some of us in helping understand where a test is coming from, but just as music has different genres, the greatest practitioners are the ones who transcend any label and can “play” in any style.

So, what should you do to address your organization’s silos? Here are some ideas:

  • Recognize that silos exist and are part of every culture—and that you may be trapped in one
  • Watch for mismanaged data, bad data flow, and measurement dysfunction
  • Attain knowledge and practice skills from other silos
  • Be agile and cross-functional so that you can accept ideas from other silos
  • Work together in teams and don’t be negative about ideas from other silos
  • Watch and understand the classification taxonomies that define your organizational culture
  • Be willing to fail with ideas from other silos so that you can learn

There also are some personal actions you can take:

  • Try doing jobs from other silos
  • Question the classification of schools and taxonomies by considering the possibility that your perspective is wrong
  • Watch out for commonly held ideas, beliefs, and practices, so that you can try to change them and be open to different proposals
  • Don’t be afraid to try new approaches, techniques, and methods
  • Fight the blindness common in your current silo
  • Collaborate with people in different silos
  • Be fluid and flexible

Use Silos to Your Advantage

When dealing with people in a silo, remember that they tend to believe that they are always right, that they are under-valued by those in other silos, that they have unbiased views, and that they know the complete breadth and depth of the space they function in.

By understanding the culture of your silo, you can help the other people in your silo recognize its negative aspects, take advantage of its positive aspects, and see what other ideas and concepts might be beneficial.

I’d like to wish everyone happy holidays, a prosperous new year, and good will testing. Remember to keep an eye on those silo-chimneys. This time of year, you never know who might get stuck.

User Comments

5 comments
Dave Maschek's picture

At a former employer, most of our teams were very Agile so that the tester-versus-developer silo did not exist. However, each Agile team was its own silo so that our code did not always play well with code from other teams. Another silo was one that came about between QA managers and testers. While outwardly supportive of Agile, the managers did not grasp how it actually worked. They would insist that testers follow rules that ran counter to the Agile concept that team members collaboratively make decisions. Some rules are needed to avoid administrative chaos, but these rules did not fit the situation.

 

December 23, 2015 - 10:32am
Jon Hagar's picture

Good example about how any group can "suffer" with a Silo, even Agile teams.  I have seen similiar thing in an Agile group I was  mentoring, but it was the reverse of what you outline.  Management want more "agile" and the team was not communicating with management about what was working and what was not in Agile.  We did some exercises with both the teams and management, which helped improve the communication between the silos.

December 23, 2015 - 6:07pm
Leyton Collins's picture

Kudos on this article; a very nice and concise summary of effects and affects of silos. 

January 4, 2016 - 10:39am
Bala Sripada's picture

A very nice article throwing light on Benefits and Blindspots in Silos

May 3, 2016 - 6:15am
Nishi Grover Garg's picture

Great write up. The first step to fight anything negative in life is to 'recognise that it exists',  and such would be the case with silos in professional teams. Well explained! 

May 30, 2017 - 10:21pm

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