Making the matrix work: skills not structure

2013

In the first part of this article, we explored why organisations introduce a matrix structure and some of the challenges they face in making this complex way of working effective. We concluded that it was the matrix mindset and it's supporting skillset that make the difference between success and failure in matrix management.

In this second part, I will outline some of the skills and people management challenges that we have seen in working with hundreds of matrix organisations around the world, challenges that can be boiled down into six 'Cs'.

Context: many organisations do a poor job of explaining the reasons for the matrix. As a result, people assume it's the latest consulting fad and resolve to carry on as normal until the next reorganisation. We need to make sure that the matrix is communicated well and that this fundamental change is bedded into the organisation over time.

Clarity : we introduced a matrix to improve flexibility, but this is often at the expense of clarity. We have multiple bosses and competing goals that reflect the complexity of our external and internal organisation. We need to provide clarity where we can – in goals, roles and alignment with others. But we also need to accept that not everything will be as clear a matrix. In fact, if we could perfectly clear and aligned, we wouldn't need a matrix, we could just cascade our perfect view down from the centre.

So we also need to get much more comfortable with ambiguity and to give people, particularly in the middle of the organisation, the information they need to manage complex trade-offs and dilemmas without constant escalation.

Cooperation: organisations we introduce a matrix to increase the amount of cooperation and communication across the traditional vertical silos – but be careful what you wish for! If we are not careful these additional reporting lines can generate more meetings and conference calls and slower decisions. The cost and complexity of teamwork increases sharply, particularly when working internationally. We found that, simpler ways of working such as hub and spoke groups can be much more effective, faster and equally engaging. We need to be more connected, but also effective.

Communication: organisations communication, both face-to-face and through technology increases in a matrix. We need to make sure that communication is relevant and engaging. We spend too much time processing, unnecessary e-mails and sitting in boring meetings and webinars. We need to integrate communications technology (including social media) into the way we work and we also need to find the opportunity to maintain two-way communication rather than endless broadcasts of newsletters and e-mails.

Control: in a matrix, accountability without control and influence without authority become the norm. We are dependent for our success on individuals we may never have met in different locations and cultures. There are many factors that can subtly undermine trust from competing goals and cultural miscommunication to working through technology and lack of visibility, and when trust is undermined managers often increase control.

So we need to actively build trust (it's no longer a free by-product of proximity) and we need to continuously develop and empower people, even though we are not face to face. Leaders used to a more hierarchical environment need to learn new skills to deliver accountabilities without traditional control and power.

Community: in the past many work communities were based on place, we got to know our colleagues over coffee and in the evening. Today communities are much more diverse and distributed, we need to make sure that the networks, communities, teams and groups that we need to succeed are established and run effectively. People experience divided loyalties between multiple bosses, their work may not be visible to their colleagues and all this has implications for engagement and participation.

So the matrix is different, it's a step up in complexity for leaders, teams and individuals. Some of the beliefs we have about management may change at this level of complexity – it's not all about more teamwork and communication, in fact this can make it worse so we must update our skills to reflect this more complex reality.

The most critical group is what we call the "matrixed middle", the people who sit in the middle of the organisation. They have dual reporting and have to bridge the gap between the central people taking a global perspective and the vast majority of people who have purely local jobs. They usually only form 10% of the population in even the most global companies and only go two or three layers down the organisation, but they are the most critical to the successful implementation of a matrix management.

These are not challenges that can be solved by the structure itself, structure is an imprecise instrument for making change, it is the behaviours that evolve within the matrix that give us the kind of real flexibility that we need.

The matrix is not for everybody, if you are the kind of person who insists on a closely drawn job description, or complete control and authority; you are likely to be unhappy.

For those that develop a more flexible and adaptive mindset and skill set the matrix offers significant opportunities – it helps you build your network, build a broader business perspective, learn new skills, take more ownership for your own role and demands higher levels of empowerment – and all these factors tend to lead to higher levels of engagement.

As a VP at one of our training sessions said recently, "The matrix can either be a web you get caught in, or a network you use to get things done" which it is for you will depend largely on your skills.

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About The Author

Kevan Hall
Kevan Hall

Kevan Hall is CEO of Global Integration, specialists in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is also the author of "Making the Matrix Work – how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity" and "Speed faster, simpler ways to manage people, projects and teams in complex companies".