The UK General Election in May 2015 produced a result that few had expected. One of the outcomes was the virtual disappearance of the LibDems. At the time I predicted that it could mark the re-emergence of a new political force based on the original Social Democratic Party of the mid 1980’s (the fact that there are no signs of life to date is yet another example of my lack of prowess as a soothsayer). My premise was based on the fact that all political parties are coalitions and that as the right and the left inexorably move to take up more polarised positions, there will always be fertile ground in the centre. Some rightly say that the Conservative party has moved to take much of that ground, although recent events in the Labour Party, together with the forthcoming referendum on Europe, leave me fairly confident that my prediction has a fighting chance of becoming reality.
Political parties are good examples of silos. They are rigid, tribal, hierarchical, and self-reaffirming. They encourage collective thought, group think and, as a result, confirmation bias. In a Manichean way, they divide between their position, good; and that of others, bad. They preach to the converted, see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear. Not only are they disenfranchising people who see them as of growing irrelevance to their day-to-day lives, but, more importantly, they’re not very effective. As Christopher Hitchen said: “The only real radicalism in our time will come as it always has – from people who insist on thinking for themselves and who reject party-mindedness.”
The world that we live in is both complex and ambiguous. Issues that affect us have a habit of being inter-twined and often intractable. Our small island faces challenges that are supra-national, long-term, expensive and existential. Many of these challenges defy traditional ideological compartmentalisation. And yet despite huge advances in technology and methods of organising, we’re still using a political process designed in the 18th Century. Our political parties are organised to have non-negotiable positions which they put to those in the electorate who can be bothered to vote. The party with a winning mandate (based on first-past-the-post in 650 unequally sized constituencies) try and manage their response to these complex issues through a party machine. It does seem as if we are using old tools to fix new problems.
The business world is waking up to similar challenges. In a global, disruptive, Uber world, corporations are facing threats to their very existence. The models that they have used to organise and manage their affairs are having to be rethought. In fact, the very idea of organisational design is being put to the test. We may have thought that specialisation and organisation was the way to success but now we’re having to reconsider whether what we gain in efficiency we lose in effectiveness (Gillian Tett’s book, “The Silo Effect” is an excellent read on the whole subject). Social technology is slowly seeing the end of hierarchy, command and control leadership, and vertical silos. The best companies recognise that the route to success is paved with curiosity, collaboration, challenge, dissent, and action. Solutions are created most effectively by groups of inter-linked people who come together specifically to solve issues. Having teams for the sake of having leadership team meetings doesn’t work any longer. They may have the responsibility but the power left long ago.
We no longer benefit from silo thinking and silo organisations and, indeed, we no longer need to. Social technology can provide us with far more effective ways to come together to solve complex problems. What this means for business is becoming clearer (non-hierarchical, self-organising, social teams). What it means for politics is far less clear. However, what is certain is that we could all benefit from taking a look at all issues from outside whatever social or political silo we find ourselves in. As Bertrand Russell said: “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”