Crisis Required to Eliminate Politics

I have just completed reading a book about what I would consider one of the major barriers to knowledge sharing. The title of the book intrigued me more than anything – Silos, Politics and Turf Wars -and I thought this could probably help me understand what feeds the politics in organisations.

Brief overview of the book: the book is interestingly written in the form of a biography. It tells of a Jude Cousins, a marketing guy in a newly-acquisitioned organization, who when things go horribly wrong as a result of the merger, leaves to start his own consulting firm. He acquires a couple of clients, and as the chapters unfold, the book tells of how each of his client organisations have problems around, you guessed it – SILOS. Interweaved in the storyline are the moments of doubt and anxieties he has about the viability of his consulting business and about supporting his expanding family (wife delivers twins).

Cousins concludes his engagements with his client organisations successfully. The panacea which he introduces to them is primarily for senior management to collectively agree on a “rallying cry” for the organisation, a single qualitative focus, which he later refers to as a “thematic goal”. There was something that Cousins (Lencioni) said that seemed to resonate with what I myself had experienced about organisations and crises.

Cousins noted that when organisations are in a crisis, the call for organisational survival empowers people to look beyond their departmental agendas and prejudices to “collaborate” themselves out of the situation. He observed this especially in the A&E department of the hospital he brings his wife to, where budgets and responsibilities did not matter as doctors, nurses and even admin staff worked in harmony to save the lives of people brought in. Granted that not all organisations are in a crisis all the time or that we have to put them in one, the author promulgates that when people understand what a potential crisis could be, it would help them determine the rallying cry or thematic goal for the organisation.

A rallying cry surpasses current operational activities and agenda. Couched in the form of a statement, it expresses what the organisation uniquely needs to address to avert a crisis. In the example of the firm that Cousins left, the rallying cry was “Complete the Merger and Launch the New Company”. [There are subsequent steps to Cousins’ “silo-busting process” including determining “defining objectives”, articulating “operational objectives” and providing suitable metrics, and wrapping them within a stated time period for accomplishment.]

The resonance I felt was with the reference to the “crisis”. I recall that in a certain government agency that had concluded its major BPR study in 1998, the CE required that every staff member of the 900-strong organisation attend the communication sessions, which were held for 3 consecutive days. An effective change management strategy it seems on foresight and hindsight, the comms enabled staff to understand the changes that were to come as a result of new processes and technology being introduced, and more importantly how it was going to affect their work and jobs.

One thing he said that I felt tipped the “buy in” indicator positively, was when he said “if we don’t do this (change), we will be obsolete in a matter of time. Customers will not want to come to us [our facilities] because it would be so inconvenient for them to have to queue to be served. They would rather go to the cinema, or take up other leisure activities. Our stakeholders will stop funding our services, seeing that they are so unpopular and we would have to cut our staff strength and close down branches.” When staff were given the vision of the “potential crisis” that the organisation and they themselves could be in, they were more prepared to cooperate and support the change management effort. It was not seen as a threat in a “bullying” kind of way, it was seen as a real threat to what mattered, their jobs. I know this is not really a “politics-related” problem but a change management one, but it seems that the realisation of what could potentially be a “crisis” makes people less resistant and more cooperative.

I have seen, now in my consulting role, the silos and politics (not quite the turf wars yet) in organisations. While these organisations have strategies and programmes in place, would they also benefit from having a “rallying cry”? Is there a potential crisis that they need to avert ? Is it serious enough to make them care about eliminating the silos and politics?

2 Comments so far

Matt Moore

Hello. A rallying-cry or central goal is important but I’d make a couple of comments:

1. Keeping an organisation in perpetual crisis mode is very draining. It is noticeable that the groups that the author valorizes (ER medical teams, firefighers, soldiers) have lower than average life expectancies & higher than average levels of drug addiction, suicide, etc.

2. “Silo” is almost always used perjoratively in the management literature. Thomas Barlow notes that in the real world, silos are places where important resources are stored. There is actually a role for silos.

Posted on July 11, 2006 at 08:59 AM | Comment permalink


Matt, thanks for stopping by.  Agree with your comment that an organisation in perpetual crisis mode can take its toll on its people. There has to be a period of stability, despite the “perpetual” surrounding uncertainties, to allow people to rationalise and internalise what they had been through.

I therefore asked the questions a) whether organisations have a “crisis” to avert and (b) is it serious enough to eliminate the politics? Maybe I should have asked “is it serious enough to be called a ‘crisis’?”.

I find your (Barlow’s) comment about the usefulness of “silos” interesting.  If silos are indeed places where important resources are stored, all the more reason to penetrate them, don’t you think? Unless there are other benefits from keeping them walled in.

I think the book that I read - S,P & TW - did highlight how the term “silos” came about. Don’t have it with me now. Will provide some info on it tomorrow.

Posted on July 11, 2006 at 10:43 AM | Comment permalink

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