5 Ways To Bust A Stovepipe Fast


You've been in those meetings. I know you have.

Someone new to the organization - usually young and untutored in the subtle art of diplomacy - asks, in an I-don't-get-it-it-this-is-so-stupid kind of way, "how you do (function X) around here."

There is a brief awkward silence as the seasoned professionals, usually older, look at each other in a we're-broken-but-we-can-still-laugh-about-it kind of way. And someone takes a stab at explaining.

This is the moment when a stovepipe comes into full view. It is leaking. Because the normal course of business, in which everyone has learned to live with and walk around it, is revealed as inefficient.

Washington, where I work, is famous for its stovepipes. The way we cope with them is called a "workaround." Instead of the line pointing from A to B, it points from A to C and then back to B, and we all learn the system, and usually it's fine.

Until it's not.

Private industry has the stovepipes too. Large corporations, small family firms, they're everywhere. You can tell by the funny titles people get, and give themselves. They don't mean anything on the outside, but on the inside they delineate turf. "Don't mess with me...this is my line in the sand."

When I was growing up we had our stovepipes at home. My mom owned the kitchen and the living room. Dad got the dining room and den. He also got the basement, till it got too messy. Then my mom stepped in. 

Religions are stovepiped. I remember when you were just Jewish. Now I can't keep up with all the denominations.

The paradox of the stovepipe is that it makes no sense, and yet the group perpetuates it rather than do the thing that would be sensible. What you have to realize, as others have been pointed out, is that every group dysfunction actually serves a hidden function. 

An analogy is addiction: Why does a person repeatedly overindulge? For a lot of reasons, one of them being that the pain caused by the drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, or you-name-it is worse than the pain of the emotions they can't deal with.

One might think that it takes being in charge to break through a stovepipe and restore normalcy. But in my experience, that's not always true. More often than not, the leader walks in the door, sees the trouble, tries to fix it, realizes they can't, and backs down. Unless they push hard. And then they become a "change agent," likely to last for a short time before the culture refuses their energy any further and expels them.

Fortunately there are some things that actually do work when it comes to breaking through a stovepipe. Happily for me (because I sometimes worry that my sociology degree is useless), they all boil down to some bedrock sociological principles, as follows:

Rule #1: Obedience to authority. If people in positions of power insist on integration and holistic thinking, then the group will say "of course!" and follow.

Rule #2: Groupthink. This is the tendency to change your individual opinion based on the collective opinion of the group. Cults rely on groupthink - this is obviously bad. But stovepipes are bad. So organizations can leverage the power of groupthink to create intolerance for such things cropping up.

Rule #3: Peer pressure. This is a little different from groupthink in that members of the group actually overtly tell one another, loudly and subtly, to conform. It works.

Rule #4: Shunning. In Judaism, there is a punishment called "karais," which means that your soul is cut off from the rest of the nation. This is extraordinarily painful. When the group wants to honor the positive norm of collaboration, a good way to reinforce it is to shun people who refuse to cooperate.

Rule #5: Unity against an enemy: Groups are notoriously fractious unless there is a perceived collective threat to group survival. Disasters are one. Enemy attack is another. Famine is a third. (Think about how we turn to military leaders instinctively in times of crisis.) If stove-piping is framed as a danger to the survival of the organization, this motivates the culture to adapt and change in order to survive.

Of course, the special "energizing factor" that moves this all forward is technology. It's the overly valued third factor in the well-known formula, "people, process, technology," but it should not be ignored.

When you have a united group of people (note: this is a group dynamics thing, not just a psychology thing), organized along the lines of process rationality, and equipped with the "force multiplier" that technology brings, you have entered the zone of excellence. This means that stovepipes can't grow, because the culture will quickly squash them.

No stovepipes: This is good business - good government - good organization of any kind - and ultimately, good for the brand.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


Image source here - as Apple's 1984 commercial shows, note what can happen if unity goes too far.

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