Structural links, collaborative management practices and shared objectives are three approaches to empower work across silos. Without the other two, we argue, each one of them has a hard time succeeding on its own.
There are essentially three approaches you can use to boost cross-silo collaboration in organizations. First, you can build structural links to support key processes that require cross-divisional collaboration. Second, whatever structural setup you’re in, you can develop management practices that promote collaboration across silos. Third, you can align your performance management not solely along silos but with shared objectives between functions. These three approaches are most powerful if pursued simultaneously and in a way that makes use of their complementary natures.
1. One powerful method to breaking down organizational silos is initiating change in the organizational structure
If you’re going to change your organizational structure, you should be aware of two approaches to tempering the negative effects of silos while retaining the advantages of specialization and focus within divisions.
The first approach is to review the divisional structure and assess its impact on value creation. One key question to ask is whether the requirements for cross-unit collaboration resulting from the organization’s structure are in sync with the organization’s overall logic of value creation.
For example, if an organization is creating value through multidisciplinary projects, but has its disciplines organized into strong vertical silos, there’s going to be endless tension between the vertical logic (the siloed disciplines) and the horizontal logic (the projects). In such a setting, there is a strong case to consider “inverting” the organization and making the project units the primary organizational unit structure.
The second approach in terms of changing organizational structure is to assess and strengthen the structural links between units. Such an assessment should start by identifying the key links between divisions that are required for cross-unit collaboration. Based on that, a range of structural links and mechanisms can be employed to ensure the organization “acts as one” where it needs to. An overview of these kinds of links and the tools necessary to bridge organizational silos can be found in our Organizational Structure Kit.
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2. Along with structural changes to the organizational structure, you can develop management and leadership practices that promote collaboration across silos
A recent Harvard Business Review article by Tiziana Casciaro, Amy C. Edmondson, and Sujin Jang on cross-silo leadership describes four sets of management and leadership practices that support cross-silo cooperation activities. The common denominators that allow this set of practices to operate effectively at interfaces are “learning about people on the other side and relating to them.”
The first set of practices the authors identify is the development and deployment of cultural brokers for cross-boundary work, either as “bridges” or as “adhesives”. Bridges are described as a kind of independent liaison role with equal proximity to the siloed divisions they connect, and adhesives are power networkers with strong interpersonal skills who informally build connections across the organization.
Second, cross-silo leadership includes developing strong communicative skills with a special focus on “asking the right questions” and thus inquiring and understanding the needs of those on the other side of the boundary. The goal is to get rid of what people at an ICT company we once worked with called the “I-don’t-give-a-sh*t-line” between product development and sales & marketing. Product developers would develop what they thought was sensible and salespeople would sell whatever the client wanted. Each group would throw their demands over the I-don’t-give-a-sh*t line without defining a common ground of what was feasible, desired, and made good business sense. Leaders can work against such frictions by being role models and teaching “the art of inquiring” about others’ needs.
Third and fourth, Casciaro and her co-authors advise leaders to urge their people to actively consider others’ points of view, to learn to appreciate other perspectives, and to broaden employees’ vision through multidisciplinary initiatives and networking. According to the authors, one way to achieve this is to organize cross-silo dialogues, focused on particular business issues across boundaries. One example is the “review meetings” that one financial services player we’ve worked with used to make go/no-go decisions before initiating promising but risky projects or client relationships. Those meetings would bring together stakeholders from key business, control, and risk functions to have an open-ended discussion about a particular case. Another example described by the authors is “focused event analysis” dialogues in a healthcare setting. Those dialogues are called after a failure to facilitate learning and avoid making the same mistakes twice.
While the authors are skeptical of the structural changes described above because of the inherent costs and inevitable trade-offs involved, several of the practices they propose have structural implications. For example, those who act as bridge builders between silos can assume formal roles. The organization of cross-silo dialogues can lead to questions of organization design and structure. Cross-disciplinary initiatives typically require some organizational platform, e.g., a project structure.
3 Set up your performance management and metrics to reflect cross-boundary objectives, e.g., through shared Objective Key Results (OKRs)
In a recent blog post, Felipe Castro describes shared OKRs as “the ‘secret’ weapon to breaking down silos”. Not only must there be structural arrangements and collaborative management practices to join forces across the organization, but those joint efforts must also share the same goals – and measure them accordingly. Castro reminds us that vertical goal-setting down the chain of command is a powerful silo builder. This effect becomes stronger as companies focus on performance management by objectives. In a global pharmaceutical company I once supported, we proposed a multi-disciplinary initiative as part of a new strategy, and one manager replied: “If it’s not in my objectives, my team and I won’t do it”.
To counteract this tendency, shared OKRs serve to align the organization “around outcomes, not silos”. By thinking beyond a sole focus on individual accountability, shared objectives require ad-hoc teams that are jointly accountable for achieving an outcome.
The three approaches to breaking silos described here require distinct management attention and capabilities, but, at the same time, they’re mutually reinforcing if they’re pursued in a complementary way. Omitting one of the three approaches can neutralize the other two. Both management practices and shared objectives require structural support to enable them. A structural feature alone, on the other hand, that lacks a common goal or collaborative leadership, has no chance of being effective. (Castro aptly calls this “alignment theater”.)
Breaking silos therefore requires leaders to develop collaborative management approaches, define shared goals, and create structures that allow organizational members to interact accordingly and build a joint commitment to their shared goals.