Communication Stovepipes

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Stovepipes at Word
Stovepipes at Work for Decades

This is an old term from the international spy world. It is a Tradecraft term. The idea is to create a medium in which essential information is gathered, filtered and transported up the management ladder. In the spy world it was driven by the paradox of required secrecy and the need to know. It was absolutely essential that nobody knew what information was moving, who was moving it, and where it was going. As such the various intelligence communities around the globe developed ingenious stovepipe mechanisms.

Stove pipes were also completely independent. From the tradecraft perspective this provided security for each stovepipe if others were compromised. Independent actions also allowed for each stovepipe to be massaged to work best for its purpose. Independence gave each stovepipe the ability to be flexible yet highly efficient.

Stovepipes in Industry

Now you might be wondering how tradecraft developed by organizations like the CIA, KGB or Mossad would have any bearing on your business. They are the perfect mechanism for information transfer across multiple levels within an organization. At each level, a participant will be tasked to filter out the information coming to them. Then they will prioritize that information and feed the information upward, or downward as required.

The stovepipe methodology provides a quick and simple path for essential information, while blocking out noise. Today in most industries, especially in email use, noise is the issue. We tend instead to simply copy everyone on everything. This is not only unnecessary, it is highly damaging to your organization. When every person has to filter out the noise from a hundred or more emails every day, and figure out which ones contain important information, then find that information, your organization will grind to a halt. People will tend to simply ignore everything that does not seem immediately important at face value.

So, in our attempts to give everyone all the information we have that we think they need, we simply drown them in noise and they get nothing.


This leads to disconnect. I have seen it in many organizations. Each level of management and operations is filled with good people, honest, hard working people. They try their best and work at hard and as smart as possible. Yet between those levels, and especially when jumping over a couple of levels, there is a significant disconnect.

Each level in the organization will have a different view of what is happening within. Each will behave differently based on these perceptions. There comes a horrible side effect into play at that point. As you travel down the ranks the people will feel unappreciated and ignored. They will feel that senior management simply is not listening and does not care too. They will believe that the boss has no clue what is going on and is horribly mismanaging the outfit. And they are somewhat right.

In an organization that does not have a proper stovepipe system in place, the senior management will not have a clue what is happening on the ground. There will be too much noise rising up and important, vital information either gets stalled or blocked completely. Management does care, but is not getting a clear picture and thus making errors in judgement.

From the management point of view, they will feel as though the people on the ground are dim witted, lazy and insubordinate. The boss will be pulling his hair out because he is not being informed of critical issues until it is too late to economically and effectively mitigate them. What could have been handled by a simple phone call, now requires flying halfway across the continent to fix a problem at a customer’s site.

This disconnect will lead to morale issues, high turnovers, poor efficiencies, high rework ratios, in fighting and office politics and a general poor behaviour within the company. Management will distrust labour, labour will distrust management. It will be “us” and “them” from top to bottom.

One commonly attempted, too common, “solution” is the hold meetings. You sit around for three hours in a meeting where you speak for two minutes and have to listen to an encyclopedia of information that does not involve you. Or, my favourite, when everyone gathers and simply reads off the log. They sit there are read to each other from the paper that they are all holding in their hands. Insanity! Most meetings today could be handled by a one line email.

Decision Disfunction

Do you have a problem in your business where people are always running to management to make simple decisions that should be made on the ground? How about managers that routinely micro-manage everything? How often have you heard the snickers from the floor when someone makes an ineffective or outright wrong decision? And the water cooler talk always centers around how the person making the decision was out of touch with what was going on around them. The person making the decision did not have the proper information, even though seemingly everybody else did.

The people on the ground are up against a wall expected to execute a plan that simply cannot work. The managers are dumbfounded that their plans, which seem perfect, fail. This goes on day after day. People get more frustrated, morale sinks, and the animosity¬†between people grows. Then people start getting fired and don’t understand why.

At this point everyone starts to panic. People become afraid for their jobs and close up. Information becomes less available. Communications break down completely. Fingers start getting pointed. Now, instead of searching for solutions, people are searching for ways to cover their butts and point the blame to others. It is usually at this point that everyone really starts copying everyone on literally everything. The email overflow will grind an organization to a stand still. People will also hide critical information, as an ace up their sleeve, just in case a finger gets pointed at them.

Stovepipe Salvation

What we need are stovepipes. We need to develop organized lines of communication, a hierarchy, a reporting chain. At each level, a person must be appointed to take the position of gathering the information that is coming in at that level, triaging what is vital and urgent, and passing that information upward in a clear, concise manner. They are your Gate Keepers.

Those Gate Keepers¬†will also be tasked with taking information down and disseminating it to the people at his/her level in the organization. We often hear the term lately “flat organization”. This sound nice, but in reality it doesn’t work, especially for communications. Here is why.

When you have two people in an organization, you have one line of communication. When you have three, you get three lines of communication. Add a fourth person and it jumps to six lines. A fifth person and you have ten lines.

The formula is L=N(N-1)/2, where N is the number of people, and L is the number of lines. So an organization of 100 people would have 100(100-1)/2=4950 lines of communication. An organization of 3,500 would have 3,500(3,500-1)/2=6,123,250 lines of communication.


Now imagine some of the big companies with tens of thousands of people. Can you see why flat organizations exist only on paper and why stovepipes are absolutely essential? It is our only salvation from that unholy mess.

Each Stovepipe must run from top to bottom. It must be a clear, unobstructed line from the Board of Directors, through the CEO down to to lowest individual in each sub-organization. Thankfully most companies already have a tool in place to help. It is called the Organizational Chart. You should be able to draw most of your stovepipes on it. At each junction, and especially at each fork, we need to establish a Gate Keeper that filters the information and transports it as needed. The Gate Keeper must be qualified for that position.

Information will now travel quickly up and down the lines, get to those who need it, and be properly processed. Decision makers will be able to confidently make those critical decisions because they will have immediate access to critical data. Boots on the ground will be free to pass concerns and questions up the ladder and receive timely and accurate responses. Decisions will be executed in an orderly and timely fashion and fires can be quickly extinguished before the whole project burns to the ground.

Stovepipe Decisions

The second salvation of Stovepipes is that they are designed to be the most effective and efficient decision making matrix. In a Stovepipe organization, the person closest to the decision, with the necessary skills to make that decision, is the one who makes it.

People are empowered. They are given a mandate. They are given authority. They are given information. They are given accountability. Each person in the organization becomes a decision maker. Each one works as both a technician, and as a manager. Every decision gets made by the person most qualified to make it. Every decision is made as efficiently as possible, by the person closest to it as possible, and will thus be executed in the most timely and efficient manner.

These ingredients are essential for it to work.

  1. Mandate
  2. Authority
  3. Information
  4. Accountability.

The Stovepipe will provide the tools for these ingredients to mix and succeed.

Go to your Organizational Chart. Update it! Draw your Stovepipes. Assign your Gate Keepers. Develop your communication protocols, whether it be a daily email report, a ten minute meeting, a phone call, updating a log etc. Empower your staff to make those critical decisions at the closest level possible.

Your Stovepipes will streamline your systems and communications, bring everyone into a common understanding on issues, pass information expediently, and get the right decisions made and executed in the most timely and efficient fashion. It will also break down the “us” and “them” problem. Stovepipes are a wonderful tool for reducing confusion and mistrust because they filter the noise and allow for full, direct, concise communication at all levels.


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