Blind men, Elephants, and Silos.
What we can learn about falling into the traps of tunnel vision and self-interest.
The past few weeks, we have been going deeper and deeper on the nature of how our choices shape us, why we make particular choices, and how that reflects our values. We discussed internal pressure to choose things we may intellectually understand are not the best for us and those around us.
There are other reasons we might make the wrong choices. Conscious and unconscious divisions, rules, and lines drawn can significantly impact what we perceive as the truth. Our choices can be wrong even with good intentions, if our vision is clouded and our information limited.
Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th-century saint, illustrates this in a beautifully illustrative parable. He was remarkable in many aspects, but I especially admire his ability to distill complex concepts into a simple story.
Parable of the Elephant and the Blind Men1
Four blind men went to see an elephant. One touched a leg of the elephant and said: “The elephant is like a pillar.” The second touched the trunk and said: “The elephant is like a thick club.” The third touched the belly and said: “The elephant is like a huge jar.” The fourth touched the ears and said: “The elephant is like a big winnowing-basket.” Then they began to dispute among themselves as to the figure of the elephant.
A passer-by, seeing them thus quarrelling, asked them what it was about. They told him everything and begged him to settle the dispute.
The man replied: “None of you has seen the elephant. The elephant is not like a pillar, its legs are like pillars. It is not like a big water-jar, its belly is like a water-jar. It is not like a winnowing-basket, its ears are like winnowing-baskets. It is not like a stout club, its trunk is like a club. The elephant is like the combination of all these.”
This story is enacted again and again in our modern world. Here Sri Ramakrishna uses the story to illustrate the futility of sectarian quarrels in religion. Each sect having an incomplete view quarrels with others as to the true nature of reality. The true teacher sees the partial nature in these individual truths and can unify with such a vision.
However, it’s just as applicable to organizations and is becoming much more prevalent as the world becomes complex. Our world is more complex and interconnected than ever in human history. The sheer deluge of information produced every day dwarfs any individual’s ability to process. To deal with increasing complexity, we subdivide and specialize until problems seem manageable again. As our organizations grow, we specialize to be efficient. Unfortunately, this leads up to the situation in the parable, where like the four blind men, we primarily perceive parts of various problems and issues. This leaves us at risk of missing the importance of the full picture.
In modern parlance, this partitioning and isolation within an organization is called siloism. In her insightful book, The Silo Effect, journalist and anthropologist Gillian Tett describes this problem:2
But while the world is increasingly interlinked as a system, our lives remain fragmented. Many large organizations are divided, and then subdivided into numerous different departments, which often fail to talk to each other—let alone collaborate.
She goes on further to say:
It can also be a state of mind. Silos exist in structures. But they exist in our minds and social groups too. Silos breed tribalism. But they can also go hand in hand with tunnel vision.
You’ve probably observed these silos in action. Any organization that grows beyond a certain size has divisions of labor to get the job done efficiently. For example, you may have departments for R&D, engineering, operations, marketing, sales, finance, etc. In larger companies, these may be sectioned off further by business lines.
To build accountability into these groups, we develop key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure what is being accomplished. Unfortunately, this often leads to systems where people are incentivized to choose their own gain over the good of the collective organization - despite times when the organizational good would be better for them in the long term anyways.
Fred Kofman describes this situation in his book The Meaning Revolution:3
Because individuals work to achieve their own KPIs (key performance indicators), they optimize their subsystems, disregarding the system. They consider those who contribute to their individual goals as collaborative, and those who don’t as uncooperative. True collaboration disappears because nobody is willing to consider the best way to help the team win—regardless of whether doing so means pursuing their KPIs or deferring their own tasks to help someone else achieve a more important goal. And so it is that organizations stumble along, behaving inefficiently, incoherently, and self-destructively.
This behavior can have major consequences for the organization, its members, and the world at large if the impact of the organization is significant enough.
One of the first HBS cases I read at Stanford was on Sony, the Japanese conglomerate. Sony, as Tett also chronicles in her book, is one of the most clear cases of silos overtaking a company’s ability to innovate and stay relevant. The company that defined a decade of portable music with the Walkman ended up missing the digital revolution because internally three different groups released competing music players without an overarching strategy. This was a consequence of leaders seeking to organize the diverse businesses that Sony entered over the course of many years. This led to more individual efficiency in the short run for each department but much more difficulty collaborating in the long run.
In the case of Sony, this just had an impact on the company and its future. In the 2007-2008 financial crisis, silos and siloed thinking at financial institutions led to disastrous results for the entire world. Once again from Gillian Tett:4
One of the reasons the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 erupted, for example, was that the financial system was so fragmented that it was almost impossible for anyone to take an interconnected view of how risks were developing in the markets and banking world. Gigantic financial companies were split into so many different departments, or silos, the leaders who were supposed to be running the groups did not understand what their own traders were doing.
We have established that when silos lead to narrow vision, the scenario described in the parable of the elephant and the blind men, it can have disastrous comparisons. So how do we avoid this? How do we break down silos that form, and how do we prevent them from forming?
Sri Ramakrishna’s story has one clear example of how we might break down silos. By appealing to someone outside of their group, who had a clear view of the situation, the four blind men resolved their dispute.
These people can informally pursue the root of a problem and stumble into the issues of silos, or have designated roles that must cross silos by necessity. Product management, for example, has to attempt to bust silos by necessity to accomplish its goal. To produce a successful product, it’s necessary to take the holistic view of the business into account, working with marketing to ensure desirability of the product, working with engineering, r&d, and operations to ensure the feasibility of the product, and with finance to ensure the viability of the product.
Cross-functional teams and initiatives can also help reduce the formation of silos. Typically the holistic view of the business comes top down through management. The idea is that those at the top in a company have the holistic view, and this should be propagated through the management to the grassroots. However, this often doesn’t work in practice because the same management teams are often holding departments and individuals accountable to individual KPIs. This divergence between actions and rhetoric is what we discussed in the post on values and living your culture.
What can sometimes be an effective solution to this is to build up direct grassroots collaboration. For example, in Molekule, the company I co-founded, we have a core team process, where cross-functional core teams work together to realize an initiative. Though the individuals on the team are made up of people from different departments, their goal is shared and central to company success.
Of course, there is no one systemic solution to the problem of silos. Even if you have roles responsible for holistic success built into your company, both top down and bottoms up, silos and more importantly siloed mindsets, can form.
This is not just the case in companies, but for individuals as well. Too often, we are too sure of our individual perspective and fail to consider whether our experiences and information really cover the extent of what we are judging. Like a volcanic island with an ever expanding coastline, as our knowledge grows, so too should our sense of the vast ocean of knowledge we have not yet assimilated.
Ultimately to defeat this limited vision in ourselves and be the seer of the elephant, we must cultivate humility, openness, and a sense of higher purpose. Humility helps us realize that we may be like the four blind men, seeing only a part of the truth. Openness allows us to be like the four blind men in resolving their dispute, by being willing to listen to those with an outside unifying perspective.
It’s the higher purpose, however, that truly enables us to see beyond our silos, our individual gain and loss, and seek the common good. In the case of an organization or company, this is the mission of the organization. For Molekule, for example, our mission is to deliver clean air to everyone, everywhere. This, alongside values, and a clear strategy, communicated through the organization and lived up to by the leaders, will be what allows us to realize the mission together. You can defeat silos by giving everyone clarity on the real goal.
Take a sports organization, like the Golden State Warriors basketball team. There is a clear transcendent purpose for each player, to win the game and eventually the championship. Players can individually chase personal success since their pay on the open market is generally tied to this. However, sometimes we see them choose collective good over maximizing individual success. Andre Iguodala was a former all-star, and would command a starting position on most teams in the NBA. However, in 2014, he was asked to come off the bench for the good of the overall flow of the team.
Here are a few excerpts from his memoir about this situation:5
“You’ve played well, Andre. You’ve earned the starting spot . . .”
I knew right then that there was only one reason he was telling me that. There was going to have to be a “but.”
“But I think it’s best for the team if you come off the bench. If we don’t bring you off the bench, we’re just not going to get as much from our second unit.”
I had never, in my entire NBA career, come off the bench...
Was this the beginning of the end for me? I didn’t want to think so, but every player knows that his days are numbered, and when a starter is turned into a bench player, it’s just one of those moments when you begin to wonder if the end is coming sooner than you think…
But I had to trust Steve. And I had to trust the organization. He and I saw the game the same way. If he said that the team would do better with me playing with the second unit, then I had to believe him. And most of all, I knew that whatever my personal feelings were about it, there was no conceivable way that starting a big ruckus over this was going to be anything other than terrible for the team.
Ultimately this trust proved well placed. Iguodala won three championships with the Warriors, a finals MVP, and was a key figure in the Warriors posting the most wins by any NBA team in history. By sacrificing metrics well known to deliver money in free agency contract negotiations, Andre Iguodala became even more successful personally by delivering organizational success. Notice from his dialogue, he demonstrated humility (rare for someone so publicly successful), openness, and commitment to a higher purpose. He did not do so naively either; he saw that Steve Kerr and the organization demonstrated these values and was willing to reciprocate because of his trust.
You have to decide what that purpose is for yourself or your organization, to help break the bonds of limited narrow vision. Swami Vivekananda, the famous disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, expressed this purpose communicated in the teachings of his guru thusly:
The moment I have realized God sitting in the temple of every human body, the moment I stand in reverence before every human being and see God in him—that moment I am free from bondage, everything that binds vanishes, and I am free.
This week we dove deep on a subject that is key for organizations, especially as they scale: silos. Next week we will talk about a key realization for the individual: understanding the philosophy of karma. This is a philosophy very commonly misunderstood in the west, but understanding the reality of it is key to interacting with the world and others in a healthy manner.
Sri Ramakrishna. The Gospel Of Ramakrishna . Kindle Edition.
Tett, Gillian. The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers (p. 20). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Kofman, Fred. The Meaning Revolution (p. 193). Crown. Kindle Edition.
Tett, Gillian. The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers (p. 22). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Iguodala, Andre; Wallace, Carvell. The Sixth Man (p. 172). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.