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How Managers Foster Collaboration Across Functions

The Many Hats that Managers Wear logo Managers cannot do it all alone. They shouldn’t be held accountable for organization-wide problems that stem from culture, long-standing practices, or issues that exist within the executive ranks. When there’s an expectation for collaboration across functions, there must also be broad support that doesn’t rest with managers alone. Otherwise, you’re setting those managers up to fail.

In this series, The Many Hats that Managers Wear, we’ve been examining the many and varied responsibilities of managers. Some, like giving feedback, are entirely reasonable and absolutely essential. Others, like coaching, are conditional and depend on manager competencies and organizational support.

This manager hat – fostering collaboration across functions – definitely falls into the second category. If a manager tries to do this in an organization that isn’t like-minded, that manager will constantly be rolling stones uphill.  

Do You Have Incentives for Managers to Protect Your Silos?

It’s a common lamentation in senior teams. They recognize that the organization is siloed but aren’t able to get collaboration across functions. When they bring in a consultant to help with teambuilding and silo-busting, they often put responsibility on the manager band.

It’s not fair to ask managers to do something that executives won’t do.Figures tugging on both sides of a conflicted individual

For example, if the CFO and CIO compete for resources, work at cross purposes, jockey for position, and protect their turf… so will the managers who report to them. Examples are setting expectations. No manager would dare break ranks for fear of seeming disloyal.

In addition to setting conflicting examples, executives may actually be creating incentives for managers to build and maintain their silos.

Let’s face it, silos serve a purpose. They occur naturally due to traditional organizational structures. They seem efficient and productive when you look only at the work produced within the silo. The align with what’s commonly assigned, monitored, and reviewed for employees. They create an easy way of holding people accountable. They also feel good and are self-perpetuating because people are rewarded and promoted for their technical/functional expertise within their silo.

In other words, organizations are naturally inclined to becoming siloed. Rather than resisting the allure of silos, most organizations allow and fortify their silos with incentives and practices like these:

  • Creating vertical career ladders where promotions are based exclusively on technical or functional knowledge. Job rotations, lateral career moves, and job shadowing across divisions is still rare. Hiring from other areas is viewed as poaching rather than as a healthy business practice.

  • Rewarding performance that is based on goals related only to the siloed function. Sales managers, for example, receive performance bonuses for hitting sales targets. They aren’t often incentivized for production efficiencies (achieved by meeting sales deadlines, etc.)

  • Grouping people from the same functional areas in training and meetings. HRIS training will likely be the same across all business functions, so why not mix it up and bring managers from a variety of functions together in those training sessions?

  • When cross-functional task forces or committees are formed, they’re usually a low priority for everyone involved. “Real work” takes precedence, especially when senior managers express doubt about the value of time spent in meetings or on action items related to work that doesn’t serve the silo.

  • Dotted-line reporting, designed to give people distributed responsibilities in different areas, seldom works. It’s true that “no one can serve two masters,” mainly because the “masters” themselves don’t collaborate and provide clarity about priorities and time allocation.

When the internal examples and incentives support silos, it’s not reasonable for you to expect collaboration across functions.

Silo-Busting Begins with Getting a Big Picture Perspective

On the other hand, if you genuinely want to do some silo-busting, start by building business acumen and a big picture perspective.

The propensity to stay within a silo is largely due to the silo being an individual’s comfort zone. A brilliant technical expert in engineering may feel vulnerable and at a complete loss when asked to engage in a marketing conversation (and vice versa). Retreating to the silo is a defense mechanism.

To thwart those tendencies, build bridges of understanding between divisions and departments. Make cross-functional learning and development of business acumen part of your culture. Institute job shadowing, mentoring, lunch-and-learns, internal field trips, and job exchange programs.

You can start small. Get managers talking to each other rather than talking about each other. Help them value the work done in their own areas. Show them that they have more in common than they think. Provide ways for them to recognize and value what they can offer each other.

Think big, too. You already have tools that can expand thinking beyond silos. Leverage your mission, vision, and values to unite managers. Talk more about those big-picture unifiers and encourage self-discovery about the need for collaboration in the interest of achieving more than “widget-making.”

Celebrate the small wins as you build toward a culture of cross-functional collaboration. It won’t happen overnight! Reward people who participate in the initiatives that are designed to build these bridges. Get executive sponsorship to demonstrate how important these initiatives are.

Incidentally, those executive sponsors may also need to do some bridge-building of their own. Work on creating a “first team” mentality by getting the senior team to read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and by participating in assessments and executive teambuilding designed to build cohesiveness and organizational alignment. It will be a gamechanger for every member of the executive team and for the entire organization when you do.

Benefits of Creating Collaboration Across Functions

The proven benefits of cross-functional collaboration include:

  • A stronger sense of inclusion and belonging across the organization.

  • Increased employee engagement.

  • Improvements in workflow that positively impact productivity.

  • Fewer conflicts related to “that’s not my job” attitudes.

  • Higher levels of trust as people in different areas get to know each other.

  • Expedited responses to inter-departmental requests.

  • Innovation due to business acumen and information sharing.

  • Appreciation and pursuit of diverse ideas and fresh perspectives.

  • Better alignment of goals and less time spent on counterproductive work and rework.

  • Informed decision making and problem solving.

Those benefits are real and they’re withing reach. All it takes is the right setting and the genuine desire, at all levels, break down the silos (which may be firmly entrenched).

Silo-busting is particularly important when:

  • Expertise is distributed among two or more groups.

  • The priorities, knowledge base, and work product of one group influence the direction of another group (or multiple other groups).

  • Actions and decisions of one group impact another group (or groups).

  • Workflow requires strong communication and collaboration.

  • Bottlenecks and infighting reduce productivity.

There are some scenarios where silos are useful and collaboration across functions is not necessary. Don’t try to force an expectation where it would be counterproductive. Silos are useful and may be perfectly suitable when:

  • Expertise is only needed within a contained group. Ex: the legal team.

  • Information, priorities, and direction flow up and down within a contained group. There is no outside influence of or impact from other groups. Ex: the internal auditors.

  • Accountabilities and responsibilities must be contained within a group. Ex: the sales team.

If you determine that you’d like to claim these benefits and do the silo-busting work that will get you there, don’t place the full burden on managers. They’re better positioned to carry through the efforts that need to start at the top.

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