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Cross-Silo Leadership: A Powerful Path to Innovation

Written by: Sujin Jang, Amy C. Edmondson, Tiziana Casciaro
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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. Harvard’s Heidi Gardner found that 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,” a partner in a global accounting firm told us. “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.”

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