The extraordinary rise and fall of Theranos, Silicon Valley’s biggest fraud, makes an excellent case study on what happens when teams don’t loop each other in.
Theranos’ blood-testing device never worked as glorified by its founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. She created an illusion that became one of the greatest start-up stories. She kept her contraption’s malfunctions and her company’s problems shockingly well hidden—even from her distinguished board of directors.
At the core of Holmes’s sham was how she controlled the company’s flow of information
Holmes and her associate (and then-lover) Sunny Balwani operated a culture of fear and intimidation at Theranos. They went to such lengths as hiring superstar lawyers to intimidate and silence employees and anyone else who dared to challenge their methods or expose their devices’ deficiencies.
Holmes had the charade going for so long by keeping a tight rein on who talked to whom. She controlled the flow of information within the company. Not only that, she swiftly fired people who dared to question her approach. She also forcefully imposed non-disclosure agreements even for those exiting the company.
In other words, Holmes went to incredible lengths to create and maintain a silo mentality in her startup. Her intention was to wield much power, prevent employees from talking to each other, and perpetuate her deceit.
A recipe for disaster at Theranos: Silo mentality and intimidation approach
Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (2018; my summary) is full of stories of how Holmes went out of her way to restrain employees from conferring about what they were working on. Even if they worked on the same project, Holmes made siloed functional teams report to her directly. She would edit progress reports before redirecting problems to other team heads.
Consider designer Ed Ku’s mechatronics team responsible for designing all the intricate mechanisms that control the measured flow of biochemical fluids. Some of his team’s widgets were overheating, impinging on one another and cross-contaminating the clinical fluids. Holmes wouldn’t allow Ku and his team to talk to the teams that improved the biochemical processes.
Silo mentality can become very problematic when communication channels become too constricted and organizational processes too bureaucratic. Creativity gets stifled, collaboration limited, mistakes—misdeeds in the case of Theranos—suppressed, and collective objectives misaligned.
Idea for Impact: Functional silos make organizations slow, bureaucratic, and complicated
Innovation hinges increasingly on interdisciplinary cooperation. Examine if your leadership attitude or culture is unintentionally contributing to insufficient accountability, inadequate information-sharing, and limited collaboration between departments—especially on enterprise-wide initiatives.