Making the Matrix Work

The continued push toward globalisation and the reality of single digit margins across many market sectors has seen organisations looking for ways to leverage every ounce of collaboration to optimise business results.  This has seen a stronger reliance on matrix structured organisations which in principle are designed to do just this through well-crafted areas of cooperation, that allow for value added work to take place.

But it doesn’t always seem to play out like this, not because the idea of a matrix is poor.  Rather, it seems that the matrix organisation may not be a natural fit for the human condition.  In fact the very things that eat away at the effectiveness of a matrix organisation are the same factors that are key to its success. These elements are:

  • Clarity of structure, roles and objectives
  • Mutual understanding and respect
  • Collaboration

The Challenges

At the heart of the problems created by a matrix structure is the question of structure.  At the macro level, some cultures have a stronger desire for clear, explicitly stated and unambiguous organisational structures (eg; Anglo, German cultures), whilst in other cultures there is a higher tolerance for working in ambiguous and fluid settings (eg; Scandinavian). 

Then, on a more personal level, irrespective of what country or culture the person is operating from, there is the basic need to clearly understand the primary objective of their role, the interfaces and boundaries that come with their operating environment.  A strong matrix gives this clarity on the one hand, by providing well documented policies and frameworks for working in the matrix, but then takes it away with the other hand when the people who need to make it work don’t know how to. 

Employee engagement studies conducted across western countries has shown for many years that the keys to keeping people engaged at work evolve around clarity of understanding what they are expected to do, why they are doing it and having clearly identified boundaries within which they can do what they do best.  The perception is that a matrix structure makes it difficult to deliver on these basic needs, and as a result we tend to see the following problems:

Silos are created.  The very thing a matrix is designed to eliminate is more often present in a matrix than in simpler structures.  Silos are created when the purpose of a matrix is misunderstood; when instead of seeing the new organisation through a collaborative lens it is seen through a lens of loss and having to give something up.  It is our natural human instinct to protect what we have when we are threatened, or facing change without understanding why.  Transitioning to a matrix style from command and control is the perfect situation for silos to evolve if a full transformation plan hasn’t been enacted…which is usually the case.

Roles, boundaries and relationships can become complicated.  It’s often difficult enough to stay on top of a relationship with one manager (and dealing with their expectations) along with the immediate function you work in; but two or more?  And what about the other countries in your network?  In India or China for example, do your peers believe they have the power to work around and up the organisational hierarchy to get some information for you like you can in Australia or the US? In most situations the answer is no; but due to the importance of saving face they won’t tell you that. 

It becomes easy to opt out.  As a result of the complicated roles and relationships, unclear or competing expectations, and walking on the egg shells of internal politics, the easy option is to just opt out.  Whether this is to leave the organisation, or get very good at practicing presenteeism! 

You lose good people. Many good people leave matrix organisations because of the politics at higher levels, or because expectations are so poorly communicated and managed that the real work can’t get done.  In these cases, more time is spent trying to decipher expectations than allowing talent to shine in the delivery of good work.

Making the Matrix Work

There are many tools and methods available to enhance the performance of a matrix organisation, and one set of guidelines in particular that provide a positive impact on employee engagement in a matrix, as well as driving more collaborative performance.  The best thing about these steps (outlined below) is that, besides being inexpensive, they quickly dispel the myth that matrix structures can’t work. 

1. Create a cross-functional team charter
The heads of function should have a clear picture of what successful business looks like on the back of cross-functional collaboration.  If these people can’t picture successful collaboration, then it won’t happen below them.  The respective management teams of these functions should be involved in the creation of a cross-functional team charter that captures how these groups will optimise cross-functional performance, including: collaboration, prioritising, solving conflict and communicating.  

2. Optimise how you work with your shared direct reports
The heads of function then turn their attention to have a clear and unambiguous understanding between each other around the primary objectives of their shared direct report/s.  This means that there is a clear understanding of what tasks have priority, and how consultation should occur if priorities change or the business landscape shifts.  These primary objectives, and the expectations that each head of function share are talked through at the very beginning of new reporting relationships to ensure everyone is clear on the expectations.  This is underpinned by the cross-functional team charter, and allows guesswork to be replaced by real work!

3. Train and be coached for working in a matrix
Working and leading in a matrix requires a different set of skills and mindset.  The ability to understand and work with ambiguity, manage stakeholders, build and maintain relationships and collaborate all require different development to that in simpler structures.  There’s no point training to ride a bicycle when you will be riding a motorbike! Good matrix training combines behavioural skills with a focus on connection at a values and relational level.  But we also know that on a deeper level, there are other factors that enhance or reduce our ability to be effective in a matrix; our confidence, need for recognition, cultural background and personality (eg; rigid and tough-minded vs flexible and tender-minded).  Consider coaching to help you become more aligned to working in a matrix if you know that the matrix doesn’t fit who you are…but you love what you do and don’t necessarily want to leave!

4. Things Change – so keep the team charter alive
Look for opportunities to reinforce a culture of collaboration by bringing the different functions together to review the extent to which they are achieving the output of their cross-functional team charter, and to continually update their preferred ways of working.

5. Culture Matters. 
A matrix structure works more efficiently in some countries than others.  Seek to understand the national and organisational culture characteristics of the countries you may be interacting with to understand how you can optimise relationships. 

Implementing a series of steps such as those above provides an opportunity for greater employee engagement in a matrix or highly networked environment.  It also quashes the perception that matrix structures need to be difficult; a little coordination amongst the functional leads, and even a basic level of rapport between functions and countries will go a long way. ​

Ponte Valle Insight: Making the Matrix Work

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