Lynn groaned inwardly. Paul, TopCo's operations manager, had just stopped by her office in the marketing department. He was all worked up by a rumor he had heard about marketing's new initiative to offer more custom-built products. "Is it true?" he snapped, standing in her doorway.

"Well, yes," Lynn answered. "We've analyzed the competition's order-delivery times and product quality. And to stay ahead of the pack, we need to deliver customized orders within two business days."

"Yeah, well, don't forget that we're also in belt-tightening mode," Paul countered. "And customizing orders and fast delivery times don't help." He folded his arms and glared at her. "We've got to spread our manufacturing costs over as many units as possible—and that means long production runs. It's too costly for us to do rapid changeovers in the line for custom-build."

Lynn sat back in her chair and stared at Paul. What is he thinking? she asked herself. It's obvious we can't generate revenues unless we give our customers what they want. Why can't he see that?

Stuck in the Silo

Like managers at all too many companies, Lynn and Paul experienced firsthand the problems created by organizational silos—those invisible but often destructive barriers that can arise between functions in an organization. Silos may take the form of unwillingness to communicate, share information, and collaborate, as well as a tendency to compete over resources. Though silos can hamper a company's operations, they arise for understandable reasons. Each business function—marketing, sales, finance, operations, R&D, human resources—has distinct objectives. And these different goals can lead to an "us versus them" mindset among managers.

Result? Conflicts become visible to customers and sour their perceptions of the firm—leading them to defect in favor of rivals. Silos become particularly rigid when employees in different functions are unwittingly working at cross-purposes owing to opposing goals or compensation systems. For example, in a retail store, salespeople who earn a salary may adopt a relaxed manner with customers, helping them to find what they need but avoiding aggressive selling. Meanwhile, customer-service reps who earn bonuses for cross-selling to customers while processing their phone orders may take an aggressive stance with callers. Customers who visit the store and place orders by phone may grow frustrated by what they see as mixed messages coming from the enterprise.

Customers want a seamless experience with your company—something that's difficult to deliver if you and your colleagues in other functions are separated by silos. To give customers what they want—and bring in the cash your firm needs to stay healthy—managers must break down those silos and replace them with cross-functional collaboration. This work requires strengthening your silo-spanning skills or populating your marketing department with people who possess skills or experience from other function areas.

Six Ways to Bust Silos

Any manager can take the initiative in busting his or her company's silos. So why don't you start the wrecking ball swinging? You'll win a companywide reputation as a cash-flow leader—and exert greater clout throughout your firm. Use these six silo-busting strategies:

  1. Focus your colleagues' attention on the customer. For example, remind them that "customers want us to fill their orders quickly and accurately. They don't want to wait endlessly for their order just because we've committed to long production runs in order to control costs." Then point out how silos are draining cash from your company: "We lost two major customers last quarter to BestCo—our biggest competitor—because of long delays in fulfilling their orders. That's $250,000 now fattening BestCo's bank account instead of ours." You may also want to take the lead in sharing information about customers. Whether this is done systematically, such as through the organization's CRM system, or on a more ad-hoc basis, through reports and presentations or brainstorming meetings, is secondary; marketing, more than any other function, has its finger on the pulse of the customer and is in a position to provide such information.

  2. Focus on the company's Web site. Regardless of whether marketing has ultimate authority and control of the budget to make decisions, the Web site is the most significant outward face of the company. It's the entry point and relationship-enhancing vehicle for customers and all other stakeholders. Therefore, it's perhaps the best example of ongoing work of consequence to virtually all functions inside your company. To demonstrate your value, learn about how the Web affects each key function and how you can make the site more effective in serving the needs of others.

  3. Encourage information sharing. When managers from different functions routinely share information, they learn more about one another's goals and views of the customer. To encourage information sharing, model the behavior yourself. As often as you can, have lunch or meet informally with your counterparts in R&D, sales, IT, manufacturing, and other functions. Find out what these colleagues' most pressing challenges are. Share similar information with them. These exchanges help all participants expand their view of the company and may generate insights about how you might help each other better serve customers.

  4. Gather colleagues' opinions. Ask for their opinions whenever you have an idea for an important new marketing initiative or program. Explain your idea to them, and get their thoughts about how the project might affect them and what cross-functional implementation challenges the initiative might raise. By inviting peers' input early on, you boost your chances of winning their support for your idea. And you learn more about marketing efforts' unintended repercussions for other parts of the company—and ways to mitigate those repercussions.

  5. Seek out cross-functional teams. Because a cross-functional team's work requires input from several functions, collaboration is essential. Led properly, cross-functional teams enable a company to accomplish important objectives with flexibility and speed, informed by multidisciplinary knowledge. And in the most effective cross-functional teams, the group goal overrides the parochial goals of any one member's department. Especially valuable teams are those exploring new business opportunities, whether on the radar screen of senior management or beneath the radar screen on a shoestring budget.

  6. Encourage job shadowing. You can further break down silos by spending time in other parts of your company, observing how your peer managers to their jobs, seeing the kinds of problems and successes they experience, and even performing some of their activities. Some companies make job shadowing a required practice. For instance, Intuit—the company that makes the well know Quicken accounting application—requires its software programmers to spend time at the help desk, and Farmers Insurance requires all marketers to work as sales reps and all sales reps to spend time in marketing.

These are potent strategies you and your team can use to bust silos in your organization. Start applying them, and you may well find yourself thinking of additional ideas that would work particularly well in your company, ultimately making you a valued driver of cash flow and a true Marketing Champion.

Note: This article is adapted from the book I wrote with Allen Weiss and David Stewart titled Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies to Increase Marketing's Power, Influence, and Business Impact (Wiley, 2006). To learn more about the book and to download a chapter, visit or order the book from Amazon.

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image of Roy Young
Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.