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Integrating functional business and geographic silos

How to create more value by connecting experts from inside and outside the organization

Though most executives recognize the importance of breaking down silos to help people collaborate across boundaries, they struggle to make it happen. That’s understandable: It is devilishly difficult. Think about your own relationships at work—the people you report to and those who report to you, for starters. Now consider the people in other functions, units, or geographies whose work touches yours in some way. Which relationships get prioritized in your day-to-day job?

We’ve posed that question to managers, engineers, salespeople, and consultants in companies around the world. The response we get is almost always the same: vertical relationships.

But when we ask, “Which relationships are most important for creating value for customers?” the answers flip. Today the vast majority of innovation and business-development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices, or organizations. In short, the integrated solutions that most customers want—but companies wrestle with developing—require horizontal collaboration.

The value of horizontal teamwork is widely recognized. Employees who can reach outside their silos to find colleagues with complementary expertise learn more, sell more, and gain skills faster. Firms with more cross-boundary collaboration achieve greater customer loyalty and higher margins. As innovation hinges more and more on interdisciplinary cooperation, digitalization transforms business at a breakneck pace, and globalization increasingly requires people to work across national borders, the demand for executives who can lead projects at interfaces keeps rising.

Our research and consulting work with hundreds of executives and managers in dozens of organizations confirms both the need for and the challenge of horizontal collaboration. “There’s no doubt. We should focus on big projects that call for integration across practices.” “That’s where our greatest distinctive value is developed. But most of us confine ourselves to the smaller projects that we can handle within our practice areas. It’s frustrating.” A senior partner in a leading consulting firm put it slightly differently: “You know you should swim farther to catch a bigger fish, but it is a lot easier to swim in your own pond and catch a bunch of small fish.”

One way to break down silos is to redesign the formal organizational structure. But that approach has limits: It’s costly, confusing, and slow. Worse, every new structure solves some problems but creates others. That’s why we’ve focused on identifying activities that facilitate boundary crossing. We’ve found that people can be trained to see and connect with pools of expertise throughout their organizations and to work better with colleagues who think very differently from them. The core challenges of operating effectively at interfaces are simple: learning about people on the other side and relating to them. But simple does not mean easy; human beings have always struggled to understand and relate to those who are different.

Leaders need to help people develop the capacity to overcome these challenges on both individual and organizational levels. That means providing training in and support for four practices that enable effective interface work.

1. Develop and Deploy Cultural Brokers

Fortunately, in most companies there are people who already excel at interface collaboration. They usually have experiences and relationships that span multiple sectors, functions, or domains and informally serve as links between them. We call these people cultural brokers. In studies involving more than 2,000 global teams, Sujin found that diverse teams containing a cultural broker significantly outperformed diverse teams without one. Companies should identify these individuals and help them increase their impact.

Cultural brokers promote cross-boundary work in one of two ways: by acting as a bridge or as an adhesive.

A bridge offers himself as a go-between, allowing people in different functions or geographies to collaborate with minimal disruption to their day-to-day routine. Bridges are most effective when they have considerable knowledge of both sides and can figure out what each one needs. This is why the champagne and spirits distributor Moët Hennessy España hired two enologists, or wine experts, to help coordinate the work of its marketing and sales groups, which had a history of miscommunication and conflict. The enologists could relate to both groups equally: They could speak to marketers about the emotional content (the ephemeral “bouquet”) of brands, while also providing pragmatic salespeople with details on the distinctive features of products they needed to win over retailers. Understanding both worlds, the enologists were able to communicate the rationale for each group’s modus operandi to the other, allowing marketing and sales to work more synergistically even without directly interacting. This kind of cultural brokerage is efficient because it lets disparate parties work around differences without investing in learning the other side’s perspective or changing how they work. It’s especially valuable for one-off collaborations or when the company is under intense time pressure to deliver results.

Employees who can reach outside their silos learn more and sell more.

Adhesives, in contrast, bring people together and help build mutual understanding and lasting relationships. Take one manager we spoke with at National Instruments, a global producer of automated test equipment. He frequently connects colleagues from different regions and functions. “I think of it as building up the relationships between them,” he told us. “If a colleague needs to work with someone in another office or function, I would tell them, ‘OK, here’s the person to call.’ Then I’d take the time to sit down and say, ‘Well, let me tell you a little bit about how these guys work.’” Adhesives facilitate collaboration by vouching for people and helping them decipher one another’s language. Unlike bridges, adhesives develop others’ capacity to work across a boundary in the future without their assistance.

Company leaders can build both bridging and adhesive capabilities in their organizations by hiring people with multifunctional or multicultural backgrounds who have the strong interpersonal skills needed to build rapport with multiple parties. Because it takes resilience to work with people across cultural divides, firms should also look for a growth mindset—the desire to learn and to take on challenges and “stretch” opportunities.

In addition, leaders can develop more brokers by giving people at all levels the chance to move into roles that expose them to multiple parts of the company. This, by the way, is good training for general managers and is what many rotational leadership-development programs aim to accomplish. Claudine Wolfe, the head of talent and development at the global insurer Chubb, maintains that the company’s capacity to serve customers around the world rests on giving top performers opportunities to work in different geographies and cultivate an international mindset. “We give people their critical development experiences steeped in the job, in the region,” she says. “They get coaching in the cultural norms and the language, but then they live it and internalize it. They go to the local bodega, take notice of the products on the shelves, have conversations with the merchant, and learn what it really means to live in that environment.”

Matrix organizational structures, in which people report to two (or more) groups, can also help develop cultural brokers. Despite their inherent challenges (they can be infuriatingly hard to navigate without strong leadership and accountability), matrices get people used to operating at interfaces.

We’re not saying that everyone in your organization needs to be a full-fledged cultural broker. But consciously expanding the ranks of brokers and deploying them to grease the wheels of collaboration can go a long way.

2. Encourage People to Ask the Right Questions

It’s nearly impossible to work across boundaries without asking a lot of questions. Inquiry is critical because what we see and take for granted on one side of an interface is not the same as what people experience on the other side.

Indeed, a study of more than 1,000 middle managers at a large bank that Tiziana conducted with Bill McEvily and Evelyn Zhang of the University of Toronto and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School highlights the value of inquisitiveness in boundary-crossing work. It showed that managers with high levels of curiosity were more likely to build networks that spanned disconnected parts of the company.

But all of us are vulnerable to forgetting the crucial practice of asking questions as we move up the ladder. High-achieving people in particular frequently fail to wonder what others are seeing. Worse, when we do recognize that we don’t know something, we may avoid asking a question out of (misguided) fear that it will make us look incompetent or weak. “Not asking questions is a big mistake many professionals make,” Norma Kraay, the managing partner of talent for Deloitte Canada, told us. “Expert advisers want to offer a solution. That’s what they’re trained to do.”

Leaders can encourage inquiry in two important ways—and in the process help create an organization where it’s psychologically safe to ask questions.

Be a role model.

When leaders show interest in what others are seeing and thinking by asking questions, it has a stunning effect: It prompts people in their organizations to do the same.

Asking questions also conveys the humility that more and more business leaders and researchers are pointing to as vital to success. According to Laszlo Bock, Google’s former senior vice president of people operations, humble people are better at bringing others together to solve tough problems. In a fast-changing business environment, humility—not to be confused with false modesty—is simply a strength. Its power comes from realism (as in It really is a complex, challenging world out there; if we don’t work together, we don’t stand a chance).

One way a leader can make employees feel comfortable asking questions is by openly acknowledging when he or she doesn’t know the answer. Another, she says, is by having days in which employees are explicitly encouraged to ask “Why?” “What if…?” and “How might we…?”

Teach employees the art of inquiry.

Training can help expand the range and frequency of questions employees ask and, according to Hal Gregersen of the MIT Leadership Center, can reinvigorate their sense of curiosity. But some questions are better than others. And if you simply tell people to raise more questions, you might unleash interrogation tactics that inhibit rather than encourage the development of new perspectives. As MIT’s Edgar Schein explains in his book Humble Inquiry, questions are the secret to productive work relationships—but they must be driven by genuine interest in understanding another’s view.

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