The R&D leader was genuinely perplexed and astonished. “Wait, let me get this straight. Our company spends as much money on Marketing and Sales as we do on R&D? I don’t believe it. My team works on developing the most innovative products on the world. They should sell themselves. Why do we need to waste all that money on “Commercial” when everyone knows that we need more money for product development!
We all know that this statement is probably said (or at least thought) millions of times a day by leaders and individual contributors within functions of businesses when thinking about how the functions of their business work.
As shocking as this statement sounds, it’s unfortunately the norm and not the exception as too many businesses have developed cultures that create silos between functions. Sometimes they are obvious and in direct conflict, and sometimes they live below the surface and grow ugly tentacles that destroy relationships and businesses. Organizations that proactively break down silos and create real collaboration between functions are proven to perform better than those that don’t.
Intrigued by this topic, I conducted some research to determine what best practices exist to break down silos and to encourage business units to understand different functions. The research included speaking with business leaders who are passionate about breaking down silos, reading academic reports, reviewing insights coming from the consulting world, and then our own observations in our business simulation workshops. Based on the research I was able to come up with a list of best practices. What I discovered was there are three excellent ways of providing the skills, culture, and tools that enable employees to re-explore the importance of understanding other functions and how best to collaborate to achieve organizational alignment and results.
A classic tried and true approach, the rotational program is designed to help employees understanding their own organization by taking rotational jobs within the organization. Many of the best rotational programs will put future senior leaders into six different jobs within a five-year period. For example, we are seeing R&D leaders like the one quoted above spending a year in Marketing as a Product Manager learning about Sales and Marketing. The best practice of rotation programs typically focuses on 3-5 year programs that include 3-5 different rotational roles within this time frame.
Aggressive talent acquisition strategies
Another strategy that is working well is developing and implementing a talent strategy that focuses on targeting and hiring key talent from other organizations known to be flatter and having a culture of innovation and functional expertise. For example, one client we work with has a goal of filling 25% of open senior level jobs with talent from outside the organization who have deep cross-functional expertise and can pull the organization together and not foster a cut throat culture where nobody really wins.
Digital business and business leadership simulations present great opportunities to effectively and efficiently teach participants how to understand and walk a mile in the shoes of other functions. In a great business simulation, learners can take on the roles of functions outside of their comfort zone and learn as much as if not more than being in a rotational program for a fraction of the cost.
In a recent talent development solution that I designed focused on understanding the enterprise of the business. Participants logged into the digital simulation directly into functions they didn’t understand well. Sales Professionals ran Supply Chan. Marketing people worked in R&D. Manufacturing people ran HR, and so forth. The impact of “walking a mile in the shoes of another function” was extremely powerful and built great empathy and understanding of the other functions.
In summary, it is time to re-explore the systems of business that has been preventing leaders from understanding the other functions of their own business. As we enter 2021 and beyond, the best organizations are going to focus on deeper internal connections and developing empathetic inclusion of other functions into their plans that focus on ways of doing business better than ever before. If your organization isn’t doing that yet, it’s time.