How to Build Teams While Breaking Organizational Silos

People often talk about the need to “break down organizational silos” or “enable more cross-functional collaboration” within a company. Sounds great! But it’s easier said than done.

People often talk about the need to “break down organizational silos” or “enable more cross-functional collaboration” within a company. Sounds great! But it’s easier said than done.

Consultants have spilled a lot of ink debating where analytics, customer data, e-commerce, or user experience functions should ideally live within organizations. I don’t participate in those philosophical debates, nor do I have a strong point of view on what should live where. (In fact, I think it’s naive and irresponsible to imagine that all Chief Marketing, Chief Product, Chief Technology, or Chief Experience Officers have similar skills or budgets.)

Instead, I’ve observed several factors that consistently predict success or failure when companies crack open legacy organizational designs.

  1. Do an organization’s leaders honestly share a clear understanding of their respective roles and responsibilities? If not, start there! Set aside ego and entitlement. Focus on the strengths, capabilities, and passions of both the leaders AND their teams. Look past conventional titles and seek opportunities where someone a level or two down might thrive, given responsibility for a critical function. (Is there someone the team naturally looks to for help with an emerging capability?) Ask, “Who is most likely to be successful with this function? What will they need to improve their odds?”
  2. Have leaders broadly communicated their respective roles and responsibilities in a manner that conveys alignment and shared priorities? Drafting and peer-reviewing such communication is an excellent way to ensure leaders are genuinely on the same page. You don’t need a full responsibility matrix. Directly comparing teams’ duties is usually enough to surface gray areas and blind spots in advance. (For example: “We agree that Marketing ultimately owns pricing and packaging decisions, while Product is responsible for designing an effective checkout flow. How might we identify similarly ‘bright lines’ around the broader user journey?”)
  3. Are leaders candidly revisiting these “operating agreements” on a cadence that’s consistent with the pace of the business? Are they soliciting and understanding feedback from the ‘rank and file’ about points of confusion or unintended friction? Military strategists know that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Leaders will need to adapt even the best-planned approach. The key is to promptly, transparently, and humbly articulate what’s working, what’s not, and what will change.
  4. Are “borders” defined well enough that teams can intuitively address “jump balls” without losing momentum or consulting a referee? When you empower teams to make autonomous decisions — and that often means sharing more information than you’re comfortable with — it can be a real accelerator and force multiplier. Think of all the emails, conversations, and meetings that can be skipped when teams confidently understand leadership’s intent.
  5. Have leaders reviewed each other’s high-level goals? Even the appearance of conflicting objectives risks creating toxic divisions between teams. Avoid this at all costs. Explicitly encourage everyone to escalate perceived strategic collisions. Then quickly and transparently address any concerns. Use data, research, and customer feedback to turn potential “turf battles” into clear opportunities. (For example: “On the surface, it may seem like we can’t improve our user experience while also maintaining our advertising revenue. However, we believe we can achieve both with faster-loading web pages. We’ll clarify to teams that we aim to add genuine value for both our consumers and our advertisers.”)

When you reorganize or change teams’ responsibilities, it’s naturally disorienting to employees, suppliers, and sometimes your customers. By approaching it with a servant leader’s mindset, regularly assessing effectiveness, and communicating clearly and often, you’ll boost your likelihood of success… whether your ultimate business objective is reacting to supply chain constraints, adapting to changing consumer demand, or becoming more customer-focused.

This post originally appeared as an article on LinkedIn.