Silos are Bad, Handoffs Fail, Async Is Hard

5 Mar 2021

There is no shortage of discussion around how silos are harmful to people, teams, and whole organizations. Every level of humans is affected. I don't think I have to convince anyone there. However, there is a twist now—we are (for the most part) all remote. This is a natural breeding ground for silos to be born. Even when we are trying to avoid silos!

The common element to silos, handoffs, and asynchronous communication is: Context. Silos are bad because they purposefully deny shared context. This means you need a formal handoff. Handoffs fail when all the context is not passed along. "All the context" is why working asynchronously requires hard work and commitment by all parties.

Gone are the water cooler conversations, as well as looking over shoulders to help with a problem, and the quick nod on how something ought to work. Even under "normal" working conditions, handoffs fail. There is a reason you don't swap out a whole surgical team during a long procedure. You'd rather have the same someone on their feet for twelve hours because they have twelve hours of context in their mind. Think about that. As an organization, a hospital will forfeit "normal" schedules, 5-days a week, and adjust all their staffing and labor law compliance just to keep the same surgeon on their feet for 12+ hours, rather than swap a new person in after a few hours. They realize just how difficult it is to communicate a full context. They are doing one of the riskiest jobs there is—they have someone's life in their hands, their body open on the table.

Working asynchronously with people requires building that shared context over time. It is not going to come instantly. As an organization, you can support this process by keeping teams together for longer, with fewer distractions. The more remote, distributed, and spread out across time zones teams become, the more important it becomes for organizations to realize what is happening.

Two decades ago the only asynchronous work that happened in software was outsourcing. No one enjoyed trying to make it work. And it rarely worked. Companies blamed their international counterparts, but I bet the companies' inability to share the necessary context for asynchronous work was just as culpable, if not more so.