Working across silos – leadership in the matrix and in multi-functional projects

By Elisabeth Goodman, 14th May 2019

7 Seismic Shifts for Leadership. Based on Michael D Watkins. Material used in RiverRhee and PERLA’s course “Transition to Leadership”, delivered to members of One Nucleus working in the Life Sciences.

Working across silos – an enabler for developing leadership skills

I recently delivered one of RiverRhee‘s and PERLA‘s Transition to Leadership courses where we share, amongst other information, Michael D Watkins’ “7 seismic shifts” for new leaders.

An essential skill, when moving into a leadership role, is the ability to become familiar with the vocabulary, systems, structures and cultures that are unique to each area of the organisation.  Those working in specific technical fields – such as biology, chemistry, clinical, IT – will have their own ways of communicating and understanding each other, of working and of making decisions, which will be quite distinct from those working in HR or finance for example.

To be effective, a leader must be able to engage with people right across the organisation, and so shift from being a specialist in their field, to becoming a generalist across all areas.

Delegates at RIverRhee's Transition to Leadership course
Delegates discussing the “7 seismic shifts” at RiverRhee and PERLA’s recent Transition to Leadership  course.

Working across silos, in an organisation that may already have a matrix structure – where people are assigned to functional departments, but also work on multi-functional projects – is a great way to develop this broader awareness and understanding.

There are valuable tips on this whole topic in: “Cross-silo leadership.  How to create more value by connecting experts from inside and outside the organization”, by Tiziana Casciaro, Amy C. Edmondson and Sujin Jang, Harvard Business Review, May-June 2019, pp. 130-139.

Shifting the emphasis from vertical to horizontal collaboration

The authors of the HBR article share their findings from conversations with individuals in companies around the world.  They found that whilst people prioritise the vertical relationships (i.e. those that they report to, and who report to them) in their day-to-day work, it is the horizontal relationships, across functional groups in the organisation that will bring the greatest value to customers.

Horizontal relationships, across functions, is where there is the greatest scope for innovation and for the larger scale projects that will support integrated research, development and customer service.

As the authors say, these kinds of horizontal relationship can be the most challenging for people, as they need to learn about and relate to people who may have very different ways of thinking and learning.

As with all the best HBR articles, the author have some tips for helping leaders and those who work with them to operate horizontally, across the silos in an organisation.

Developing and making use of “cultural brokers”.

Some people are well-placed to bridge the gap between different parts of the organisation.  Examples of these, in the organisations that RiverRhee works with, are project managers and leaders on cross-functional projects.

The authors of the HBR article suggest that there are two types of “cultural brokers”: those who act as go-betweens, translating the language of the two domains in more one-off , or time-restricted collaborations; and those who take the time to facilitate collaborations in a way that will be longer-lasting and able to function without the “broker”.

Either type of “cultural broker” will need to develop the multi-functional and/or multi-cultural skills, enhanced with strong interpersonal skills, to enable them to facilitate this kind of rapport and collaboration between others.

Encouraging and developing skills in asking good questions

We all know that asking questions is a powerful adjunct to learning – it’s a technique that we teach in RiverRhee’s courses.

RiverRhee delivers training, workshops and one-to-one coaching “to create exceptional managers and teams”

Instilling a climate of curiosity is a great way to foster collaboration and hence activities such as innovation and continuous improvement – as described in a previous blog (Curiosity, Continuous Improvement and Innovation).

The authors suggest that the best practices for asking good questions include:

  • Asking open questions – rather than those that just require ‘yes’ ‘no’ answers.  And what’s more, questions that contain as little of the questioner’s preconceptions as possible such as: “How are things going for you?” [This is also referred to as “clean” language.]
  • Transitioning to more specific questions as the collaboration develops – ones that will reveal and so allow sharing of greater depths of knowledge such as: “What can you tell me about x?”
  • Checking your understanding by playing back what you’ve heard and understood – saying something like: “Can you help me check that I have this right?  What have I missed?”
  • Checking in with the other contributor(s) on their perspective of how the collaboration is going – asking something like: “What can we do to work together more effectively?”

Getting people to see things from others’ perspectives

The HBR article gives some very interesting examples of organisations that have taken novel approaches to this.  The main thing is to recognise that most people that we interact with have different perspectives to our own, and this may be even more so if they are working in different parts of a company.

Apparently whilst most people have the skills to understand other people’s perspectives, they are not necessarily motivated to do so.  It is therefore a leadership responsibility to role-model and to encourage this form of behaviour to support a more collaborate approach across an organisation.

Building internal and external networks

This is another way that leaders can role-model and encourage others to develop skills and habits for working beyond their more immediate (vertical) work group:

  • Create cross-functional projects, meetings and agendas that encourage horizontal networks, conversations and collaborations
  • Encourage employees (give them the time and resources) to explore networks that go outside their areas of expertise.  The authors advocate crossing domains between art, science, technology, business etc. – as the basis for true innovation.


Working across silos will help leaders to develop essential skills which will enable them to be more effective.  This way of working already exists, at least in part, for those operating in a matrix organisation and/or working on large cross-functional projects.

It’s a way of working that offers greater potential for innovation, solving complex problems and meeting customer needs.

It requires encouragement, role modelling by leaders, training and support to enhance the take-up of this form of horizontal collaboration across all parts of an organisation.


Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Leave a Comment