Silos in City Hall: We were not meant to live this way

A look around any number at city hall buildings in the greater Los Angeles area or the bay area of northern California will reveal some remarkable similarities. For example, if you are a Baby Boomer or on the older side of Generation X, what springs to mind when you remember the interior of public school buildings? Beige walls, embedded lockers, barbaric bathroom facilities, etc., and a general layout that was strangely familiar (when visiting) from one school to the next. Some of these layouts may have come from educational theory at the time and likely, that so many of the buildings were built about the same time.

Similarly, many city halls were constructed at about the same time, during infrastructure ramp ups in the height of the industrial era. But the configuration and layout of these buildings reflected management theory from that era as well – those rooted in an authoritarian construct. If you look at the average city hall layout, it would almost appear as though it was set up in order to create silos preventing communication and collaboration. These floorpans almost seem to connote organizational disfunction that was by design.

This reminds me of the excellent story of the Omnibus Series Wool. In this post-apocalyptic story, you have what is left of humanity living in a massive subterranean silo with various levels that were responsible for functions that kept the silo going: mechanical and power, healthcare, food, IT, administration, etc. But these levels of the silo, while interdependent on one another, did not generally cross pollinate in the social sense, and they certainly did not communicate well. As the story unfolds, you discover the intentional impediment to both communication and cooperation among the various communities. And they certainly struggled at real problem solving, such as how to eventually live outside the silo. Something within the protagonist kept telling her, “we weren’t supposed to live like this.” (By the way, if Hugh Howey saw his great story being used to illustrate this point, he might recommend that I be ‘sent out to cleaning’.)

Back to city hall layouts. My guess is that the contribution to disfunction was not by design, and that the layouts may have worked well in an era that was highly stable and very slow to implement changes reflected in advancements in business and society. But that brings us to this present time. 2016-04-03_22-01-29Irrespective of what may have worked in the past, why do such physical and organizational silos still exist? I think the root of the problem was captured well in Government Finance Review:

Many local government managers have long appreciated the potential benefits of breaking down silos – the barriers that exist between specialized functions – within government. However, for just as long (and usually successfully), silos have resisted integration. There is a good reason why silos persist: Different tribes of government workers, such as police, fire, building inspectors, and even public finance, benefit from having distinct languages, cultures, and work processes, which help organize the complexity of highly specialized professional endeavors.

This problem is not easily remedied, and there are as many organizational and physical challenges are there are people within these work spaces. The article goes on, “Why, then, despite the impressive gains that can be achieved, don’t silos cooperate more often? It is because the human brain makes sense of complexity by storing information in categories.”

So what strategies will begin to change this culture? It begins with leadership and vision. What worked in a different era may have little relevance today. Where a system, framework, guideline, rule or even workspace only exists because it always has, is probably in need of significant evaluation and assessment. This is especially true given that the largest working group (sub-cohort) in the prime working age bracket of the workplace is now between the ages of 25-29. The age of memos and silos has long past, it’s high time we acknowledged it.

PBS American Experience: Silicon Valley – The History, Sociology, Timing and Sometimes Luck that Started a Revolution

If you think the history of the silicon chip is a cure for insomnia, think again. Two quotes (or as close as I can remember) say it all, the first, regarding breakthroughs. “Breakthroughs historically do not just happen. They are a product of when the time is right, and the time has come for such a thing.” So on the one hand, we can strive for excellence and push for a culture of creativity and this will certainly produce positive results. But especially in the case of a radical and essential breakthrough, one that we would look back on as disruptive to a system, technology, culture or business, the convergence of events is just as important as the components driving the change.

From the PBS Introduction:

Led by physicist Robert Noyce, Fairchild Semiconductor began as a start-up company whose radical innovations would help make the United States a leader in both space exploration and the personal computer revolution, changing the way the world works, plays, and communicates. Noyce’s invention of the microchip ultimately re-shaped the future, launching the world into the Information Age.

The next quote, regarding timing and demand as they relate to the brilliance behind groundbreaking change. “Brilliant people exist all the time. It’s matching up a brilliant person in the right place, at the right time when people want what that brilliant person has to offer.” We can push and push for change or a breakthrough idea, but ultimately, the timing of that change must correspond with demand in order to harness the brilliance that will fuel the progress.

Public Libraries Disrupting the Likes of Amazon

When you think of the modern iteration of your local public library, a couple things might spring to mind, such as the perverts sitting at the computers offending everyone around them in the name of free speech. But another might be the question, how long can this model of an institution last? Well chalk one up for another blow to the hard and fast rule of disruption. I have observed the growing catalogue in recent years of digital material available for check out, including audio as well as e-books. But in the age of streaming versus download, the for-profit sector has started rolling out its own version of subscription based reading, and they face headwinds of an unlikely competitor, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, Why the Public Library Beats Amazon—for Now:

A growing stack of companies would like you to pay a monthly fee to read e-books, just like you subscribe to Netflix to binge on movies and TV shows. Don’t bother. Go sign up for a public library card instead. Really, the public library? recently launched Kindle Unlimited, a $10-per-month service offering loans of 600,000 e-books. Startups called Oyster and Scribd offer something similar. It isn’t very often that a musty old institution can hold its own against tech disrupters. But it turns out librarians haven’t just been sitting around shushing people while the Internet drove them into irrelevance. More than 90% of American public libraries have amassed e-book collections you can read on your iPad, and often even on a Kindle. You don’t have to walk into a branch or risk an overdue fine. And they’re totally free. Though you still have to deal with due dates, hold lists and occasionally clumsy software, libraries, at least for now, have one killer feature that the others don’t: e-books you actually want to read.

E-books you want to read? That’s right. So instead of an all-you-can-read list of digital titles with the equivalent of Smokey and the Bandit III, you have access to many of the titles from Amazon’s top 20 Kindle best-sellers of 2013 list with the following impressive results:

Percentage of Top 20 Kindle Titles of 2013

See the full grid from the WSJ article here. The article goes on to explain an interesting history of this windfall for local libraries:

How did library e-book collections get such a leg up? Amazon is locked in a hate-hate relationship with many publishers, so none of the five largest will sell their whole collection to Amazon for its subscription service…Over at the library, the situation is different. All of the big five publishers sell their e-book collections for loans, usually on the same day they’re available for consumers to purchase. They haven’t always been so friendly with libraries, and still charge them a lot for e-books. Some library e-books are only allowed a set number of loans before “expiring.”

There are obvious limitations to free services, such as availability, wait lists and time span for checked out materials. But for now, this is a terrific example of a public institution in the local community showing itself able to respond to disruptive forces, and provide viable resources to a wider audience with limited resources. It is also an excellent example of how a business model can benefit from adapting to a model that helps a local community as “publishers have come to see libraries not only as a source of income, but also as a marketing vehicle…since the Internet has killed off so many bookstores, libraries have become de facto showrooms for discovering books.” See brief overview here:

Innovation Is Not Invention

“Above all, innovation is not invention. It is a term of economics rather than of technology. Non-technological innovations – social or economic innovations – are at least as important as technological ones.” Peter Drucker

Based on Drucker’s definition of innovation, when we as an organization, identify community needs and convert them into real-life solutions that affect the health, well being and happiness of a community, that is organizational innovation. This is what is particularly satisfying about working in the public or the non-profit sectors of business. These areas of work lend to mission oriented, values driven activity. But it does not have to be limited to there. With a different application of course, private sector (while a little less public mission oriented), can  be just as values driven and possibly contribute even more in certain contexts. This is the very positive side of understanding how we used to describe commercial activity years ago: business and society.

More Notes on Tesla’s Patent Sharing

Tesla surprised most readers with its blog post announcing in essence, and open source of its patented technology,

Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.

Immediately, our minds [rightly] go to the risk this represents, but in a post last month, the point was made that by tapping into the sharing power of the social era, Tesla may diffuse billions in costs it now shoulders alone:

Lured by the higher volumes, auto suppliers would also develop new parts, components and systems —software, brakes, charging devices—that would make Teslas run more effectively and lower production costs. Gas stations, start-ups, office buildings would build many more charging stations to accommodate the larger number of electric vehicles on the road. Utilities and real estate developers would start making home-charging stations standard rather than expensive extras. All of this would be a boon to Tesla. And the company might find it could start charging drivers of other electric vehicles for access to the super-charging network it has already built. And if electric vehicles were to rise in popularity, the government would likely offer increased support. Imagine if every rest stop on an interstate housed a rapid-charging station.

Navigant Research shows the following projections with a few continued, sluggish years that may be followed by a ramp up as collaboration pays off:

EV Sales Projections - Navigant Research

In a post on this topic, Navigant shares the possible benefit of collaboration among large manufacturers:

While the patent release by Tesla will surely increase collaboration with the major car manufacturers already producing EVs, it’s much less clear that open patents will move the dial on the major automakers who have largely steered clear of EVs in the past. Toyota, GM, and several other major players are hedging their bets on EVs, and Tesla’s patent release is unlikely to change their position…Increased collaboration between the major EV players could lead to this figure being achieved ahead of schedule.

Only time will tell of course, but this example of a fundamentally different way of doing business will be interesting to watch and hopefully, will turn out to some degree as expected.

The Future of Problem Solving

In our time, there is a new requisite skill set: being a futurist. A futurist was once only an avocation among the best of thinkers, and somewhat of a novelty and a subset of sociological and economic studies. It is very interesting to read authors like Alvin Toffler or Peter Drucker (along with a number of others) and observe how they saw things sometimes dimly, but often very clearly that were seemingly hidden to others. But it has been decades now since the advent of the information age and the decline of the industrial era. What this has created is an environment where it is no longer an option but to take charge of one’s future, in terms of actively, deliberately and even aggressively engaging in activity that is inherently future in its benefits. To a certain degree, success means understanding the future is simply not an option.

Problem solving has always been a core skill of leadership, but increasingly, this skill as a requirement has migrated to the average employee. To make this even more complex, the motif we hear regarding the next generation of leaders is the ability to solve problems that do not yet exist. Just to name a few, an article from from several years ago cites:

Alternative Currency Bankers – According to Javelin Strategies, 20% of all online trades are already being done with alternative currencies. The stage is being set for next-gen alt-currency banks.

Waste Data Managers – To insure data integrity in today’s fast evolving information storage industry, multiple redundancies have been built into the system. Achieving more streamline data storage in the future will require de-duplication specialists who can rid our data centers of needless copies and frivolous clutter.

Privacy Managers – If you think you have lost most of your privacy already, we’ve only scratched the surface. We are all terminally human, and as such, we do not always make good decisions. Striking the perfect privacy-transparency balance will require far more than amateur insights. It will require a privacy professional.

Government Agency Dismantlers

See the full post from 2011 here. Some of these ideas might have seemed absurd a few years ago, but have already come began to be put into practice. Years ago Alvin Toffler warned,

Perhaps the greatest cost of wave conflict in America will be paid by the millions of children currently compulsorily enrolled in schools that are attempting to prepare them – and not very successfully at that – for jobs that won’t exist. Call that stealing the future.

The takeaway? Try something new as an antidote to paralysis or as Toffler also warned,“if you don’t develop a strategy of your own, you become a part of someone else’s.”

The Shelf Life of Innovation

For a visionary, a perfectionist, an idealist or someone who is driven by simply tying to get things right organizationally, there is a great deal of satisfaction in driving innovation whether it be product, process or service. But just about everything we work with was once an innovation. Everything was new once. It is not enough to fix something, and then create a monument to it in the form of a process that soon becomes dated and ineffective. Or worse, protect that monument rather than allow the present order to be disrupted with ideas that we may not quite understand. What needs to happen is outlined in The Case for Institutional Innovation,

In today’s environment of exponential technology change and market uncertainty, institutions that can drive accelerated learning will be more likely to create significant economic value on a sustainable basis… As institutions are rearchitected to take advantage of rapidly evolving technology infrastructures to scale learning, they can become more adept at generating richer innovations at other levels, including products, services, business models, and management systems.

This goes for every type of organization, including governments. This is perhaps especially true for smaller governmental entities even though such organizations are being challenged due to overall economic trends and possibly, long-term shifts in revenue. However, due to their manageable size, the above stated innovational trends are entirely possible if such an organization adopts and aggressively implements a philosophy of learning from top to bottom. This can be largely implemented through scaled learning, rather than simply turning to economy of scale. It does not necessarily have to be a choice between the two, scaled learning can take place in any context, and it does not require of formal system in place. This is the nature of a learning organization and the characteristic that emerges within an organizational culture that leverages learning opportunities. And it begins with leadership and willpower.


Hagel, J. III & Brown, J. Institutional innovation: Creating smarter organizations to scale learning.