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Cross-Silo Leadership: Connecting Experts to Create Value



In today's complex and rapidly changing business environment, companies need to leverage expertise and collaborate across organizational boundaries in order to capitalize on promising innovations and opportunities. However, breaking down silos is often challenging for leaders and employees naturally focus on vertical relationships within their own teams or business units.


Instead of relying solely on formal restructuring which can be costly and confusing, leaders should focus on four activities: 1) developing cultural brokers within the organization who excel at bridging different groups 2) encouraging open-ended questioning that explores others' viewpoints 3) actively perspective-taking to understand different ways of thinking and 4) broadening employees' networks to include more distant connections. By supporting these four activities, leaders can nurture what the authors call "interface collaboration" where connecting and learning across boundaries becomes second nature.


Today we will explore how leaders can promote cross-silo collaboration by engaging in activities that connect people across divides.


Developing Cultural Brokers


It is essential that you work to identify and develop cultural brokers - employees who are skilled relationship-builders across different internal groups or external partners. These boundary-spanning individuals excel at connecting experts from disparate parts of the organization or beyond.


Leaders should look for potential brokers who demonstrate curiosity, cognitive flexibility and high emotional intelligence. Rather than siloed thinking, cultural brokers tend to see interconnectivity and are comfortable operating in ambiguity. Leaders can encourage brokers by exposing them to different functions, clients and contexts to expand their perspectives. Rotation through diverse roles, inclusion in cross-functional initiatives and partnerships with external entities are valuable developmental experiences.


Sponsoring informal networking events where brokers can meet new contacts is another way to support their bridging capacity. Leaders should also publicly recognize the collaborative contributions of brokers through awards, promotions and compensation to reinforce this activity.


Promoting Open-Ended Inquiry


It is important to promote open-ended inquiry and curiosity across boundaries. Leaders can encourage employees to ask questions that genuinely explore others' viewpoints rather than just confirming existing assumptions.


For instance, when initiating a new partnership between internal groups or external partners, leaders could design sessions focused on understanding different perspectives before rushing to solutions. Asking questions like "What key assumptions differ between our groups?" and "What factors or constraints shape your viewpoint?" can uncover insights and prevent misalignments down the road.


Leaders should model open-ended inquiry themselves by admitting what they don't know and asking outsiders for input to broaden their perspective. They can also train employees in skills like active listening, empathy and inquiry-based dialogue. Rewarding substantive information gathering and adjustment of opinions based on what is learned will motivate the desired behavior.


Taking Different Perspectives


In addition to inquiry, try actively taking others' perspectives - putting oneself in another's shoes to understand how they see the world. Immersion experiences, role reversal exercises and simulations are ways leaders can encourage perspective-taking across silos.


For example, leaders could have R&D scientists shadow customer support reps to gain empathy for user challenges. Or rotate manufacturing engineers to the sales team to get exposed to client objectives. Managers should participate alongside direct reports in these exchanges and discuss the experience afterward to reinforce interest in different viewpoints.


Leaders can also use tools like stakeholder mapping to visualize economic, emotional and other factors shaping stakeholders' positions. Taking time to articulate others' reality expands employee mindsets beyond narrow functional concerns.


Broadening Networks


Finally, there is power in broad professional networks in helping employees gain new knowledge and relate to very different groups. Leaders should actively sponsor relationship-building with both close and distant contacts inside and outside the organization.


Tactics include making diverse introductions, supporting conference attendance or involvement in external associations and enabling short-term collaboration with other companies. Job rotation and special projects again provide networking opportunities. Alumni groups, mentorship circles and online communities are other avenues to broaden networks.


The goal is developing employees’ comfort engaging and learning from people far outside their normal function or industry. When networking is prioritized and rewarded, connections multiply.


Conclusion


Breaking down silos is critical but often difficult in complex organizations. Leaders can enable cross-boundary collaboration by focusing on four activities: developing cultural brokers, promoting open inquiry, encouraging perspective-taking and broadening employee networks. This moves organizations from narrowly siloed thinking to genuinely exploring different viewpoints and connecting diverse expertise. While formal restructuring has limitations, leaders who support cultural shifts toward curiosity, empathy and broad connectivity can unlock interface collaboration, innovation and new value. Executives should concentrate on enabling these activities through training, incentives, networking opportunities and role modeling. With practice, relating and collaborating across boundaries can become second nature.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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