Mainstream or Silo: Where to put a new organizational priority?

An evolving social sector constantly adds new priorities, issues, and interventions. In their worst forms, these shows up as over-hyped trends or the proliferation of targets. But a more generous view on this phenomenon sees a learning sector and an indicator of human progress: we tackle needs that were previously unrecognized, adapt as new problems arise, and wield better tools against challenges old and new. New priorities mean we’re ultimately doing more.

Mobile technology, climate adaptation, human-centered design, urban resilience, impact evaluations, microfinance, participatory methods, working politically: these are all things that didn’t exist in the sector, until one day they did, for one reason or another. And then they spread.

The spread of a new priority presents a unique challenge for any organization that works on multiple issues or has a broad agenda. Various market and non-market pressures will occasionally encourage adoption of new priorities, methods, and frameworks. This impacts foundations, bilateral donors, multilateral institutions, NGOs, contractors, and even governments. The cynical view calls this mission creep, but again, there’s a generous view that sees organizations adapting and responding to their various constituents.

How does this response occur within a given organization? It usually leans toward one of two extremes:

  • Siloing gives the new priority its own organizational home, budget lines, technical specialists, and so on. The quintessential example is the “innovation unit” that every large NGO and donor has created in some form or another.
  • Mainstreaming blends the new priority into existing and better-funded work. This approach is often suggested for cross-cutting issues like gender or governance.

Both responses have their detractors and advocates. The term “silo” is rarely used with a positive management connotation, as it suggests a barrier to collaboration. However, like their agricultural namesakes, they can serve a useful protective function. They create organizational buffers. Siloing can also serve an added signaling function: nothing tells internal and external stakeholders that X is a priority like appointing a Chief X Officer.

Mainstreaming is slightly more popular, but it’s often associated with watered-down checklists that accomplish little. An initiative without an organizational home risks going adrift, with no one responsible.

As is usually the case with organizational questions, this is not about which is better. Rather, it’s about the conditions under which a particular blend of each is optimal. How can we approach that question in a meaningful way?

An organization’s ability to successfully execute on a new priority depends on two factors: the type of support within the organization; and the nature of the practice. Let’s take each in turn.

Factor 1: Support. Who supports it? And do they actually understand it?

Project management textbooks preach the importance of executive-level support for any new initiative. The executive can access resources, open doors, and provide cover. This smooths organizational change, but executive support isn’t the only starting point—something had to occur to generate that executive support, after all—nor is it the end point. Beyond the executive, widespread acceptance at the mid- and junior-levels is equally relevant.

Don’t assume that support implies understanding, at any level. If a priority has hype around it or a charismatic executive behind it, there might be a lot of excitement from people who don’t really know what it is. That’s frustrating if you’re trying to get attention for a different priority, but if you have the hype on your side, you might as well use it.

Factor 2: Practice. Does it have an established practice? And is it teachable?

An established and teachable practice has a set of frameworks, tools, and techniques that allow it to be mainstreamed. Some priorities and issues are too new to have a clear practice associated with them. For example, real-time monitoring data might fall into that category: a lot of people think it has promise, but even some of its practitioners question what it actually involves.

Other priorities might have established practices, but obstacles to learning by other professionals may hinder mainstreaming efforts. This could be because the practice is too technical (e.g. some aspects of ICT4D), or requires too much tacit knowledge or craftsmanship (e.g. PDIA or development entrepreneurship). This kind of practice is only teachable over a very long timeframe.

So where to put your new priority?

At a general level, a priority is well placed in a silo if it has concentrated support within the organization and is either still emerging or highly technical. It can move to the mainstream if support is distributed and the practice is both established and teachable. (See the lower left and upper right quadrants in the diagram.)

mainstream or silo matrix


That leaves two ambiguous areas: an emerging or technical practice that already has distributed support (upper left), and an established and teachable practice that has only a small set of supporters (lower right).

These quadrants are the routes from silo to mainstream. Path A builds support first, then turns the practice into something others can adopt (evangelize then templatize). Path B consolidates and refines the practice first, then educates others on what’s been learned within the silo (consolidate then educate).

Even in explaining why some priorities belong in silos, it’s hard to escape the norm that drives toward mainstreaming. If there’s one insight this framework provides to counter that tendency, it’s that priorities need both distributed support and teachability in order to be mainstreamed. Otherwise, they’ll have greater organizational impact in the silos.

(Of course, you can flip this to inform the dark arts of management: if you don’t think a new priority is worth pursuing and you’re also pretty sure it lacks distributed support in the organization, go ahead and mainstream early. Then watch it fizzle away.)

What about the sector as a whole?

Moving up one level of abstraction, the sector as a whole also has its own version of silos: usually smaller organizations that pioneer new methods. A few microfinance institutions, most famously Grameen Bank, developed their approach long before microfinance became a priority for the entire sector. Building Markets started driving local procurement in humanitarian aid in 2004, and later saw it become a priority for global aid agencies, such as through USAID Forward in 2010. IPA and J-PAL did the same for RCTs. The list could go on.

These priorities are eventually mainstreamed as they get picked up by larger organizations—especially donors, which can serve as nodes in the sector—or as these smaller organizations grow. If a forward-looking executive at a larger organization wants to stay ahead of the curve, keep an eye on smaller organizations for new work that can gain broad support and be teachable to others. Those will be tomorrow’s priorities.

Photo: Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Also published on Medium.