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Row of farm silos representing cross-silo leadership and horizontal collaboration

Horizontal collaboration and cross-silo leadership

Tiziana Casciaro, Amy C. Edmondson, Sujin Jang

October 21, 2019

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

Today the vast majority of innovation and business-development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices or organizations. The integrated solutions that most customers want, but companies wrestle with developing, require horizontal collaboration.

The value of horizontal collaboration is widely recognized. Employees who can reach outside their silos to find colleagues with complementary expertise learn more, sell more, and gain skills faster.

One way to break down silos is to redesign the formal organizational structure. But that approach has limits: It’s costly, confusing, and slow. 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.

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.

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.
Adhesives, in contrast, bring people together and help build mutual understanding and lasting relationships.

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. Firms should also look for a growth mindset.

2: Encourage people to ask the right questions

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.

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

1: 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.

2: 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Leadership Center, can reinvigorate their sense of curiosity.

It’s important to learn how to request information in the least biased way possible. This means asking open-ended questions that minimize preconceptions, rather than yes-or-no questions.

As collaborations move forward, it’s helpful for team leaders or project managers to raise queries that encourage others to dive more deeply into specific issues and express related ideas or experiences. How you process the answers also matters. It’s important to train people to check whether they’re truly getting their colleagues‚ meaning, by using language like, “This is what I’m hearing” and “Did I miss anything?”

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. Look for a growth mindset.

3: Get people to see the world through others’ eyes

Leaders shouldn’t just encourage employees to be curious about different groups and ask questions about their thinking and practices; they should also urge their people to actively consider others’ points of view. People from different organizational groups don’t see things the same way. Studies consistently reveal that this leads to misunderstandings in interface work.

Psychological research suggests that while most people are capable of taking others’ perspectives, they are rarely motivated to do so. Leaders can provide some motivation by emphasizing to their teams how much the integration of diverse expertise enhances new value creation. But a couple of other tactics will help:

1: Organize cross-silo dialogues. Leaders should set up cross-silo discussions that help employees see the world through the eyes of customers or colleagues in other parts of the company. This happens best in face-to-face meetings that are carefully structured to allow people time to listen to one another’s thinking.

2: Hire for curiosity and empathy. You can boost your company’s capacity to see the world from different perspectives by bringing on board people who relate to and sympathize with the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of others.

4: Broaden your employees’ vision

You can’t lead at the interfaces if you don’t know where they are. Here are some ways that leaders can create opportunities for employees to widen their horizons, both within the company and beyond it:

Bring employees from diverse groups together on initiatives. As a rule, cross-functional teams give people across silos a chance to identify various kinds of expertise within their organization, map how they’re connected or disconnected and see how the internal knowledge network can be linked to enable valuable collaboration.

Urge employees to explore distant networks. Employees also need to be pushed to tap into expertise outside the company and even outside the industry. The domains of human knowledge span science, technology, business, geography, politics, history, the arts, the humanities and beyond, and any interface between them could hold new business opportunities.

The tricky part is finding the domains most relevant to key business goals. Leaders can take one of two approaches:

1: A top-down approach works when the knowledge domains with high potential for value creation have already been identified. A bottom-up approach is better when leaders have trouble determining which outside domains the organization should connect with—a growing challenge given the speed at which new knowledge is being created. Increasingly, leaders must rely on employees to identify and forge connections with far-flung domains.

Breaking down silos

To unleash the potential of horizontal collaboration, leaders must equip people to learn and to relate to one another across cultural and logistical divides. Over time the practices we’ve just described—none of which require advanced degrees or deep technical smarts—dissolve the barriers that make boundary-crossing work so difficult. When leaders create conditions that encourage and support these practices, horizontal collaboration across the company will ultimately become second nature.

This article was originally published in the May-June 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review.


Portrait of Tiziana Casciaro

Tiziana Casciaro

Tiziana Casciaro is a professor of organizational behavior and holds the professorship in leadership development at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

Portrait of Amy C. Edmondson

Amy C. Edmondson

Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School. She is the author of "The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth‚" and a co-author of "Building the Future: Big Teaming for Audacious Innovation."

Portrait of Sujin Jang

Sujin Jang

Sujin Jang is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. Her research focuses on global teams and the challenges of working across cultures.