How Product Managers Can Break Down Organizational Silos

Are organizational silos preventing your team (and your organization as a whole) from realizing its full potential? You’re not alone. Today we’ll look at how organizational silos form, and share ways teams can burn down silos and build bridges in their place.

What do we mean by organizational silos?

When we think of the organizational silos that affect product management, we usually imagine the obvious ones.

  • A product team doesn’t talk with their sales department, so they don’t know how their reps sell the product.
  • A product manager seeks feedback only from customers, ignoring prospects who chose not buy, and as a result, never learns what might turn off many of the product’s user personas.

Product managers need to continuously gather and analyze information from many sources. You need to know how your marketing team crafts messages about your product. And, how your sales team articulates the product’s selling points, and what objections they hear from prospects. You also need to know why your customers buy from you or don’t buy from you. Those reasons might be different from the ones you had in mind when you developed the product’s roadmap.

Even if you and your team haven’t fallen into these types of organizational silo traps, product managers often operate in other, subtler organizational silos without knowing it. We’ll discuss two examples of this below. Then we’ll go over some suggestions for minimizing these silo traps as much as possible.

How do organizational silos form?

Below, we’ll discuss two ways organizational silos can form right under your nose.

The internal-story silo

Imagine your team decides internally to build a product that is “better” than everything comparable on the market. It will have more features. It’ll offer better performance. It will come with a higher price point, but the added functionality should more than makeup for that.

By the time you roll out your product, your entire organization has been telling itself the “we have the better product” story for months. But when you launch, you find few buyers.

Maybe if you had consulted a carefully selected cross-section of user personas, you would have found those users were happy with the competitive products on the market. They might even agree with you that your product offers better performance and features they can’t get from the other offerings. But they might not care. They might find your competitors’ products good enough.

But your team didn’t learn that, because you fell into the internal-story silo of believing the fact that your product was going to be better necessarily meant it would succeed.
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The incorrect-assumption silo

Now imagine your company sells SaaS software, and you talk regularly with your sales team to learn what prospects say about your product. That’s good. But are you sure your sales team is telling you the whole story? Could you be missing key pieces of data?

For example, let’s say you introduce an inexpensive, stripped-down version of your product by offering a free trial download. Your research tells you many people are downloading the trial version, but conversion rates are very low. What’s happening?

Your sales team might tell you that customers want more features than you’ve offered with this version. But that, it turns out, is not the reason—at least not the main reason.

If you dig into the data, you might find your sales reps receive a lead notification from each of these trial downloads but don’t follow up the way they do with more expensive versions of the product. The price point is too low for them to bother making a proactive sales call.

In other words, even if you speak with your sales department to find answers to a troubling question, you might still fall into an information silo if you take their assumptions at face value.

As these two examples should illustrate, you need to gather and synthesize information from many sources. You also need to continuously confirm and re-confirm your assumptions by checking them against these sources. This is the only way to know if the strategic decisions you’re making are still the right ones, or if you need to course-correct. Next, we’ll discuss a few suggestions for avoiding and defeating organizational silos.

5 Ways to break down organizational silos

1. Schedule lunches with key reps from development, customer support, sales, etc.

All of these departments deal with your product in one way or another on a regular basis. Your support team, for example, hears what customers find challenging or problematic in the product.

The more contact you have with these various groups across your company, the broader an understanding you can develop of how your product and the market interact. And that can knowledge can help keep the information silo walls from forming around you.

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2. Sit in on company finance or budgeting meetings.

Another information silo you don’t want to fall into is focusing on your priorities development in a vacuum, and not understanding how your company’s resource limitations might affect those priorities.

So ask to join company accounting meetings, where you’ll gain a better understanding of when and why your product team might face a tightened budget or a hiring freeze. This advanced warning of developments like these could also prove invaluable.

3. Join your reps for sales calls and prospect demos.

Remember the internal-story silo we discussed earlier? This can happen to product managers who form opinions or assumptions about their products and don’t regularly check those opinions against real-world feedback.

You might assume, for example, that prospects who become customers do so because of your flagship feature, the one you’re so proud of. In reality, those users might gravitate to a different area of the product altogether, or have a different use for it from the one you envision. This is why road trips with your sales reps to visit prospects can be so valuable.

4. Give your marketing team a product demo as if they represented a prospective customer.

Just as you don’t want to fall into a product management information silo, you don’t want anyone else on your cross-functional team falling into one, either. For example, that you can’t assume your marketing team understands how you expect customers to actually use the product. You can simply send the marketing department a bullet-point list of a new product’s main features and selling points, but will that list tell them the most powerful way to reach your market? Not even close.

So sit down with them, walk them through the product, and let them experience it as though they were the customers they’ll be trying to persuade to try the product.

5. Invite a sales executive to your development kickoff meeting.

Finally, the key to keeping down as many information silos from forming as possible is to bring together all of your cross-functional team, and help everyone understand the goals and obstacles to your product’s success.

One example of this is to bring a sales executive to your early development meetings. If they’re operating in their own silos, sales teams can forget their developers are often working on many projects at the same time, and that they are typically working as quickly as they can.

By bringing your sales execs or reps to dev kickoff meetings, you can give them a new appreciation of the limitations and constraints under which the development team has to work. This can help sales both better understand why they can’t always have their priorities enacted immediately and can help them more strategically prioritize their future requests.

A final thought on organizational silos

This list of suggestions for avoiding organizational silos could obviously go on and on. The broad point to keep in mind: As a product manager, you will need to continuously take in and analyze all types of information. This comes from a wide range of qualified sources and ensures you are always making strategically sound decisions for your product.

There is one period of time, though, when we believe you might benefit from a silo. After you’ve talked to your sources and synthesized all available data, you now face some difficult choices. How will you prioritize your product’s development? Perhaps it’s time to disappear into a silo. Don’t take any more input. Instead, deal with the data you have and make the tough decisions.

How do you ensure your product team doesn’t fall into the organizational silo trap? What are your processes for ensuring continuous cross-functional communication?