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It is an issue we are all too familiar with: too many silos, too many people with authority over various critical resources that make the project as a whole nearly impossible to execute. Solutions include obtaining executive sponsorship, improving one’s organizational savvy (a.k.a. political astuteness), defining cross-functional projects as defined change initiatives, and simply plowing forward in a ask-forgiveness-not-permission approach.

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Turns out, this problem can be explained as part of a bigger issue, which is nice because it lets us pull the silo problem out of the complex world of psychology and begin to apply strategic and economic models to it. The bigger issue behind silos has been coined The Tragedy of the Anticommons, a take on the famous “tragedy of the commons,” in which private individuals in a market economy each have a personal incentive to overuse public resources, despite the inevitable wasting of that resource. (OK, maybe it’s only famous to economists and econ students.)

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The solution to the tragedy of the commons is private ownership—think farmers who used to overgraze public land and who can now erect fences on their private property. However, private ownership taken too far creates gridlock: if everyone owns a piece of something, it becomes far easier to block progress than to move forward. Think children jointly inheriting a house, who cannot do anything with it unless they all agree, but who can too easily block one another’s plans!

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In the tragedy of the commons, the power to act is diffuse, the power to block highly concentrated. In the tragedy of the anticommons, the power to block is diffuse, the power to act highly concentrated. Forward progress seems to flow best when these two powers are in balance; neither extreme is good, as both extremes require an autocrat to generate alignment.

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A great introduction to this issue by Michael Heller has been posted on ChangeThis today. It’s quick and it’s worth a read… and it may get you thinking about whether the way in which “ownership” of tasks within your team promotes teamwork or petty squabbles, and whether undesired, autocratic leadership can be eliminated through a different and more somewhat more communal division of labor.

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