Invention and Silos

Silos of a building

Silos get a bad rap – it is already in the term “silo”. Which is quite unfortunate for the practice of innovation. There is a need for a differing approach.

Just to get it out of the way: innovation is not about “breaking down the silos” – but neither is it about simply strengthening informal networks between silos. Both these positions are understandable – and both of these practices can be valuable and even necessary – but for innovation they are not ends in themselves.

All complex tasks, and most of modern life involves necessary specializations. And these specializations can and do easily become worlds unto themselves. We have departments, domains, and disciplines each with their own practices, customs, tools, ecosystems and concepts – and these can get territorial or organizationally structured so as to be “siloed”. But these specializations – these “individuations” are also necessary.

Organizationally, inter-departmental movement, coordination and communication are also obviously critical. This is happening both formally and informally. And in all structures the deep imbrication of the informal is as important as the formal to basic functioning.

But for innovation the issues revolve far more around the invention of new disciplines – new structures of agency and knowing. The practices necessary to do this will involve dissolving certain specialities, by-passing some, re-networking others, strenthening yet others, and developing entirely new specialities, networks, customs, tools, ecosystems and concepts.

In the process of doing this there are also times when “siloing” the new – to allow it to be, and stay, new is critical. For, as the new emerges, it is far too easy for it to be pulled back into the old – to be forced to do the work of the old, as A. N. Whitehead so wonderfully put it. Part of developing feedforward cycles that lead to new systems stabilizing – is protecting them from falling back into the old via some temporary form of "siloing".

The desire to break down all silos can also become a desire and logic to erase all qualitative differences. To make many worlds reducible to one. We need to ask – who does this benefit?

The rhetoric of silos is part of the jargon of innovation – and it is a rhetoric that puts the focus far away from the processes necessary for engaging with creative processes.

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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