Finance doesn’t understand Operations. Engineering rolls its eyes at the mention of Marketing. Customer Service and IT aren’t what you’d call on the same page. The only thing the Western and Eastern regions agree on is how dumb Central is.
We don’t intend to build barriers between people, groups, or functions. We believe we function more effectively as an integrated community. Yet step outside the smoothly-running core of one process or team and you’ll find silos. Silos aren’t inherently bad. They provide a crucible for excellence that flat, highly networked, and matrix-structured organizations cannot because specialization and inter-role operability don’t readily coexist.
Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist best known for his work on group sizes. A group, community, society tends to dysfunction above a point where it’s safe and useful to appreciate each other as individuals. We are doomed to splinter into groups, build firewalls to isolate ourselves, and fail to understand each other’s needs and strengths once our organization grows beyond a comfortable size: above one hundred to two hundred individuals.
Or are we?
Do we have to include everybody in the organization in our tribes so we can function? No. We can use mediators: individuals or small groups who act as connectors between larger groups. Ari in Finance and Jessie in Operations understand enough about each other’s role in supporting the integration of their system in the broader work of the organization that things work beautifully when one or both of them shepherd interactions that fall outside accepted, documented, regularly used procedures.
When we build mediator roles into our larger organization, whatever the underlying structure, we create networks through which we achieve better handoffs and mutual appreciation between people who don’t interact regularly because of the nature of their roles or their location. Mediators provide a channel between groups and bring groups into closer alignment with each other.
Are formal roles necessary for effective mediation? It depends on the organization’s leadership, resources, and capacity to use interdepartmental support consistently. In a culture that builds walls rather than bridges, clear support from senior leadership through line management is vital to lasting, effective handoff between subsystems.
Humans are inherently tribal. Mediators are the diplomats who respect our nationalistic tendencies while opening routes to exchange of ideas, best practices, and an appreciation that, however different our methods and focus, we are committed to common goals.