Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on August 29, 2021.
Do you often feel the need to go far up the chain of command in order to accomplish an initiative with a colleague in another department? You should need to go only as far as necessary to obtain approval if the initiative is beyond each of your authority levels.
An Aug. 6 article in Inc. reported on a 2018 memo sent by Elon Musk to his employees in which he stated, “Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the chain of command. Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere.”
Musk was frustrated by this bureaucratic practice that evidently existed at Tesla in 2018 and wanted to change the organization’s culture.
He continued, “If in order to get something done between departments, an individual contributor has to talk to their manager, who talks to a director, who talks to a VP, who talks to another VP, who talks to a director, who talks to a manager, who talks to someone doing the actual work, then super dumb things will happen. It must be ok for people to talk directly and just make the right thing happen.”
In today’s business environment where speed and collaboration in part determines competitive advantage, employees working together effectively across the organization is essential for a company to thrive.
In every company, things get done through both the formal and informal organizations, and there should be no cultural restrictions against people talking with people. You should be empowered to launch initiatives with your colleagues in other parts of the organization without having to travel all the way up your organization structure and back down theirs. Just keep your manager informed about what you are doing.
Many companies implement improvement projects from the top down. This is not sustainable. CEOs need to establish a culture in which employees feel empowered to implement projects within their authority level. If an initiative is beyond their authority level, they seek approval from the individual with the approval authority.
When an initiative crosses functional lines, depending on its complexity, it may be appropriate to get managers in both organizations involved, but this should be done at the lowest organizational level necessary to execute the initiative.
Early in my career, our company operated a siloed functional organization. To facilitate specific focus on our products and markets, we created the position of product manager with P&L responsibility to lead a cross functional team consisting of members in manufacturing, marketing, sales, R&D and finance to grow the profitability of the product manager’s product line. This matrixed organization encouraged a sense of ownership and focus on products that were lacking in a siloed organization.
I was a product manager that led one of these cross-functional teams. We were empowered to challenge paradigms, launch initiatives to lower costs, streamline business processes and develop new products within our individual authority levels. We kept our managers informed, and sought approvals when approval authority exceeded our own.
This matrixed organization operating within a traditional functional organization was very effective in breaking down silos and growing our company. Musk wanted to break down silos within Tesla. We should all work to do the same within our own organizations.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.