United we Stand, Divided we Fall

Actionable Steps for Breaking Down Silos at Work

When we join a company or team, we bring with us our skills, expertise, expectations, and egos. It can be difficult to make an impact until we acclimate to novel team dynamics and build relationships with people on whom we can depend.

The Big Idea

Todays technology companies make products in a collaborative process that requires teams that ostensibly have little to do with each other to work together. It can be easy to overlook the cultivation of relationships with cross-functional team members.

This article looks at the professional and business cost of failing to collaborate with team members from "across the divide". It provides actionable steps for how to break down silos at work and the personal rewards for doing so.

The State Of Cross-Functional Dysfunction

The best products are created when an eclectic group of people are given the opportunity to have their opinions heard, but this perspective isn't shared among even the most disruptive design leaders in the game.

"Done is better than perfect."

It's this sentiment that's been championed by Facebook's COO, Sheryl Sandberg. As an impactful product leader, her words carry quite a bit of weight. It's quotes like these that have encouraged a culture where rapidity is valued more than quality. It's this itch to bring a product to market that discourages cross-team collaboration.

Naturally, this attitude fuels tension between team leaders. When roles, ownership, and accountability are unclear, teams become less efficient, less coordinated, and less supportive of each other.

A cross-functional team leader won't even sit down for a meeting because an emphasis on speed means your input would only slow them down.

Team that are in service of other larger, more influential, and revenue-driven teams may not have a seat at the table when critical decisions are being made.

It's this dynamic that can lead to and perpetuate silos of domain expertise.

The Arbinger Institute researches and streamlines how organizations operate. In their recently published book, Leadership And Self-Deception the institute found that silos lead individuals to feel self-justified for bad behavior, like exaggerating other people's faults or inflating their own virtue.

Imagine every team involved in designing a new product felt this way?

Designers would say that UX research is taking too long, the research team would fault designers from working independently from the engineering team, and engineers would build sloppy UI for the designers to then refine later.

Works suffers when infighting creates a toxic work environment. According to a Harvard Business Review study of leading corporations, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.

So how do you remedy the situation?

Creating A Functional Ecosystem

With speedy development at the forefront of everyone's minds, the question becomes how to best spend your time to achieve your goals?

Should you focus on building your own team and reaching your specified goals or should you reach across the aisle and nurture relationships with cross-functional partners?

While both are critical to any well-oiled organization, the latter often gets overlooked.

A cross-functional ecosystem might comprise team members from various groups including Data Science, User Research, Product Management, Engineering, User Research, UI Design, UX Design, Content Strategy, Product Marketing, Network Operations, and Legal.

The prospect of investing the time into building a rapport with so many department heads can be daunting. But I think Katie Dill, VP of Design at Lyft summed up the urgency to build rapport best in a recent McKinsey report when she said, "You can't sit around waiting for that invitation, you need to reach across the table."

Waiting for a member from a different team to reach out to you will only lead to more waiting. As a product leader, have you found yourself waiting for an invitation that isn't coming?

Part of the reason you've delayed reaching out is because you're missing a concrete plan. Here are actionable steps you can take to help build rapport.

Actionable Steps For Building Rapport

Firstly, compile a list of team leaders and influencers whose work intersects with your own. Next, prioritize which one you need to meet with first. If there's a team member that you find particularly difficult to speak with, build-up to this interaction by first connecting with other more accessible team members. It's this practice that will refine your conversational chops.

After you've made your list, invite cross-functional leaders to a brief meeting. To effectively build rapport, it's best to first understand the situation of your fellow co-workers. Showing sincere interest in their needs will open them up and build a connection. Be sure to ask each person on your list these four questions:

  1. What challenges are you (your team) facing?

  2. What gets you (and your team) excited about what you do?

  3. What do you truly want for (your team, this project, the business, yourself)?

  4. What would massive success look like for you and your team?

Benefits of Building Rapport

Building a symbiotic relationship isn't done by listing out your own needs and then asking how your co-worker can help you achieve them. Instead, do the opposite; listen. Doing so will result in these benefits:

  1. Cross-functional leaders will see that you value them for who they are, not what they can do for you.

  2. Building rapport is a positive behavior that contributes to a healthier and more productive work environment.

  3. You are building trusted allies, thus making it harder for you and your team to be marginalized.

  4. You gain clarity about how other groups collaborate and influence each other while learning how to be a better leader for your own team.

  5. By listening to other leaders you will learn the language of leadership making you a more powerful leader.

Building Lasting Rapport

A single conversation where you heed the needs of your co-worker won't generate lasting rapport. Perhaps for a week or two they'll welcome you into more conversation and value your input, but your influence will wane unless this rapport is nurtured.

At the end of this initial conversation, make a commitment to continue to build inter-functional team rapport. Signal to your co-worker that you're serious about changing the dynamic. You'll stay true to your work by following these steps.

  1. Out of sight is out mind. In every cliche, there's a grain of truth. If you don't continue to have meetings with leaders from other departments, your relationship will wane. Make it a point to interact with other department leaders on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

  2. You want your entire team to build rapport, not just yourself. Task certain team members with the responsibility of checking in with members of other teams.

  3. Generate ownership by involving members of other teams in goal setting. Interlocking different teams through defined objectives will necessitate that the lines of communication are kept open throughout the duration of the project.

  4. Celebrate and acknowledge the help of others. Any time an athlete wins an individual award, the first people they thank are their teammates. Do the same by celebrating achievements with other team leaders and acknowledging that your achievements are their achievements as well.

Product design and development is a team effort. Failing or neglecting to involve other team members will degrade your overall body of work. As the sage Katie M. Dill says, "It's not design versus the business, it's about what we can do together."

Building a sound ecosystem based on respect and trust isn't a weeklong process. It's a relationship that will need maintenance until its last breath.

Get Started

Team up with me to learn what it takes to radically change your relationship with cross-functional leaders. Together we'll discover your needs, design a tailor-made plan, and deploy a functional plan that will help you reach both your professional and personal goals. Let's chat over a complimentary coaching consultation to learn more about how together we can achieve your objectives.

Suggested Resources

  1. Demystifying Design Leadership. Katie Dill. Lyft. YouTube Video

  2. The Business Value of Design. McKinsey Quarterly Report. Oct. 2018

  3. 75% of Cross-functional Teams are Dysfunctional. Behnam Tabrizi for HBR

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About Sally

Sally Grisedale is an executive coach for leaders working for the world’s leading technology companies. Before coaching, she was a product designer, design manager, and executive who built products for companies like Yahoo!, Facebook, and Apple. 

Sally is a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (UK), a student of Chinese Metaphysics and Neuroscience in Leadership Development. 

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