Tail Up, Paws diggin’: Escaping the Silo Work Style
by Heather Kluter

  • Escaping the Silo Work Style

    Many years ago, at the start of my career, I worked with the nation’s top home builder. I had the opportunity to join the marketing and product development teams, and I enjoyed the homegrown, family feel of this very successful company. When I had been there for about a year, an executive from a leading CPG company joined the company and brought much needed knowledge. He commented on our work style in what I thought was a very insightful way – like dogs, we were butts up, diggin’.

    The tree-like structure we operated under naturally created independence from one department to another. We weren’t really working together, and much of our work was disjointed and lacked synergy and strategy.

Later, I joined a struggling auto manufacturer and was excited by the challenge that this “do or die” brand was facing. There are very few product categories as exciting as the automotive category. For decades automobiles have captured the hearts and minds of millions of consumers. While the automotive industry did have a high level of consumer involvement across shopping and ownership experiences, the industry was demonstrably absent when it came to creating a culture of strategic innovation and cross-department innovation and communication. Cultures of rapid innovation are very common in the tech space, but are less likely to be well-developed in Industrial Age Companies such as the Automotive Industry.

I knew from experience that encouraging cross-functional learning and discovery was the best place to start if you want to create a company-wide, strategic culture of innovation. And we did just that. It took almost a decade, but the fruit of our efforts was a cohesive innovation process that involved core and extended teams across the company, from all divisions. We grew new leaders much faster than a traditional hierarchical structure ever would, and the pride, bonding, and morale that came from these structural changes were priceless.

Today, I am lucky to consult with a wide variety of companies—from established Fortune 100 companies to “aggressive” start-ups hoping to reach that level one day. And I still see many who are butts up diggin’. They remain extremely siloed and lack cross-team collaboration. But our most successful engagements come when we can bring together team members from across the client company at the very start, rather than limiting our project development to communication with just one group, such as the insights department. Since those workshops are attended by key executive champions they visibly support the team’s efforts. In all the workshops we have conducted with cross-department executives, because their knowledge and needs were included along the way, the key executives were able to champion the strategy and recommendations developed in the workshop throughout the organization.

Those clients realize that the benefits from cross-functional collaboration aren’t just nice to have. They are critical to success in today’s environment. Here’s why traditional, hierarchical org structures don’t work:

  • Their executive leadership is uncomfortable with a change in structure and the risk of failure that will come from time to time. Executive support of a cross-silo workplace is critical. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that projects with a higher-level cross-functional or single high-level executive champion had a 76% success rate compared to just a 19% success rate for those without that support and oversight.
  • They require too much time for employees to grow into leaders. Cross-functionality leads to faster learning and quicker skill building. A series of small wins along the way allows employees to grow, or fail while growing, in a safer environment where they may feel more likely to take risks.
  • They can’t respond rapidly. They simply aren’t as agile as smaller mixed-team structures.
  • They don’t engage employees as well as non-siloed structures do. The O.C. Tanner Institute’s 2020 Global Culture Report found that 79% of employees are suffering from some sort of burnout at work; 40% of those report moderate to severe burnout. Gallup estimates that employees who are checked-out cost the U.S. economy up to $605 billion through loss of productivity. Cross-functional bonding can often minimize that.
  • They are more likely to produce lower-quality products and services. Cross-silo projects bring continuous input from the variety of groups that touch a new product or service. Including such diverse knowledge at each step of development allows quality to be infused at every step.
  • They inadvertently support poor communication and conflict. Cross-functional teams must learn from the start to communicate effectively and to resolve conflicts. It may seem that the diversity in these teams could be a hotbed for conflict. But the teams have a common goal and will be rewarded for the overall success of their work. Members are not focused just on completing their specific skill set, so conflict can actually be dealt with more effectively and minimized.

The next time you assess your work, your team’s work, and your company’s work, think about the value that work is bringing, either immediately or long term. If you can’t define that value and feel you may be doing a whole lot of unimportant, busywork, you may be butts up diggin’. Contemplate a change!

About the Author

Heather Kluter (hkluter@decisionanalyst.com) is a Senior Vice President, Automotive Research at Decision Analyst. She may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.


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