Breaking Down Silos ... For Real This Time

Breaking down silos ... for real this time

I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a company or on a team that didn’t complain about cross functional silos. Every offsite, kickoff, boardroom and brainstorm seems to try and address this problem. The silo issue doesn’t seem to be reserved for large companies either. I see it just about everywhere. I will say, from the perspective of a manager, the problem seems to magnify the more varied functions and groups you lead.

Some teams put in place measures to break down silos, to improve collaboration across departments and functions. More frequent updates, new tools, more communication. These efforts come from a good place, but in my experience, they fail because they address symptoms, not causes.

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This week I’m going to share the approach I use to break down functional silos. Unlike the tactics mentioned above, the approach I’ve adopted is designed to get at the root causes of silo-dom. No matter what company you work for, whatever size and industry, you’re likely to hear people complaining that the various teams work in silos. They don’t communicate. They don’t share the same priorities. They don’t know what each other is doing. Projects take a long time. Objectives are disconnected. There is no common definition for success. You’ve heard all of these I’m sure.

When I look at the teams I’ve worked on, a few common observations jump off the page for me:

Derivative KPIs (aka Vanity Metrics)

Functional teams tend to get fixated on metrics and performance measures that are too far removed from the most important outcomes the business cares about. Growth in twitter followers is the quintessential example. It’s so derivative. It’s so far abstracted from real business outcomes. No other team can possibly care about or relate to this metric. Its value only comes from its relationship to other higher level outcomes which are so far removed from it, it seems useless. When teams start caring too much about these derivative metrics, they can get disconnected from what’s important to other teams and to the company. Widespread vanity metrics is a common problem I see in teams and companies especially challenged by silo’d operations.

Lack of a natural mechanism for cross functional prioritization

When functional groups each have their own priorities, it’s very difficult for supporting teams to know how to prioritize across them. For example, imagine you’re on a team that builds web site pages in support of programs, campaigns and other projects across a handful of teams. Five different teams, with five different managers, all need your help on projects. But you have finite resources to apply to them. While each individual request represents a top priority for team that owns it, you have no mechanism for prioritizing across them all. The impact is teams tend to prioritize poorly. They tend to respond first to the loudest voice or the most urgent sounding project or their friends in the organization. That is not an effective mode of operation and is a classic symptom of silo-dom.

Holding accountable vs helping

I wrote about this extensively in my book. When teams operate in silos, they tend to view each other as stakeholders or customers or even competitors. What they don’t do, is treat each other as partners with a common mission. Because they don’t have one. Cross functional teams “hold each other accountable” when, what they should be doing, is helping each other achieve a common goal. I’m not saying you don’t challenge other teams to deliver on time and with quality. What I am saying, is that your mindset, when working with other functions, should be one of partnership.

Lack of shared context leads to low quality work

Teams tend to throw work over the fence at other groups and then complain about the quality of what comes back. I see it in Marketing all the time. The campaign strategists complain that the creative teams just don’t get it. They assign work to a designer or developer or operations person without ever providing the full context for WHY the work is important and what its actually trying to achieve. Instead, they fill out a creative brief or project request or some other sterile form and wonder later why the work that came back lacked insight and creativity. Teams need to bring other functions closer. Provide more context, not less. When people understand why you’re doing something and why it’s important, they can be more creative and precise in how they help you.

I’m hoping you’re nodding your head right now and that these challenges sound familiar to you. The next question is, how to fix the problem at its root vs. address the symptoms. It’s not enough to launch the latest collaboration tool or some new project management methodology. Most “solutions” to the silo problem tend not to address the root issues. Rather they put Band-Aids on the problem. They create the illusion of collaboration.

Introducing Cross Functional Initiatives

Several years ago, I started introducing cross functional initiatives for the teams I manage. A cross functional initiative is a medium term, integrated project designed to bring many functions together in pursuit of a common goal. I’ll usually have 5-7 of these for a year (or half a year), and they represent the highest priority outcomes we’re pursuing as a larger department or company. When I speak to the company about what my teams are working on – this is all I talk about.

I started doing this because I observed that each of the individual teams I managed defined success in a different way. They each had their own functional objectives which meant they lacked a unifying mechanism to bring them together. Sure, they all reported to me, but there was nothing else to bring them together. The web site team had web site objectives, the content team had content objectives, the campaign team had campaign objectives … you get the point. There was no common purpose.

There was also no way for teams outside my group to prioritize the various requests we sent across. Was the web site team’s project more important than the campaign team’s project? It was impossible to know. The result was a lot of wasted resource and many sub optimal decisions across the organization.

An Example Cross Functional Initiative

Rather than having the web site team only care about visits or page views, and the content team only care about downloads and white papers, and the campaign team only care about leads and pipeline, I added a meta layer to galvanize them all. This layer was directly connected to real business outcomes e.g. revenue growth, share acquisition, retention etc. The problem with functional objectives is that they’re too disconnected from what the business is actually trying to do. If you’re not careful a team can easily begin to believe that web site visits or twitter followers have intrinsic value i.e. that they have some value in and of themselves. They don’t. They only matter in the context of what the company is trying to accomplish at the highest level. Cross functional initiatives are a great way to ensure your team never forgets what is really important.

Here is an example to illustrate my point:

The Old Approach – Functional Metrics Only

  • Web Site Team – Visits and Pageviews
  • Content Team – Downloads and Reports
  • Campaign Team – Leads and Pipeline

When your functional teams get locked into these KPIs, they lose sight of the bigger picture. What are we actually trying to do with these things? Other teams don’t care about these KPIs. They are abstracted from real business outcomes. It’s no wonder you get silos in this type of environment.

The New Approach – Cross Functional Meta Layer

  • Initiative #1 – Create Awareness Earlier in the Buying Cycle
    • Web Team = Increase organic search visits by X%
    • Content Team = Increase downloads of thought leadership reports by X%
    • Campaign Team – Grow marketable database by X%
  • Initiative #2 – Improve Win Rate with Value-based Content and Tools
    • Web Team = Increase visits to product page by X%
    • Content Team = Deliver online ROI calculator
    • Campaign Team = Increase lead-opportunity conversation by X%
  • Initiative #3 – Grow Deal Size by Positioning the Full Suite of Products and Services
    • Web Team = Increase average time on solution page by X%
    • Content Team = Deliver video demo of full solution suite
    • Campaign Team = Drive X opportunities from upsell/cross sell campaigns

I’ve used a very rough Marketing example because that’s the easiest one for me to do, but the same principle applies in every department. By adding a meta layer on top of the functional metrics, I give every team a reason WHY they are doing what they’re doing. I’m linking their functional metrics back to real outcomes that can galvanize the larger team. If you’re doing something that can’t be rolled up into one of these larger initiatives, you have a natural mechanism by which to question if it should be done at all. And other teams can use the same mechanism to prioritize the service level they give to inbound requests from my team. Does this project roll up into a key initiative? If yes, prioritize. If no, deprioritize.

You may think this is all obvious. Goal setting truisms. But in my experience, these types of cross functional mechanisms are rarely in place and functional teams quickly turn into silo’s because they lack a unifying purpose. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the problem of silo-dom and how you try to solve it at your company.

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