What is a matrix team? A definition

The term “matrix team” is coming into regular usage, but how do we define a matrix team.

In its strictest definition a matrix organization structure is where people have more than one boss. So we could simply define a matrix team as a team where individuals on the team report to more than one boss.

However, there are a variety of forms of matrix management and matrix structures and the term matrix team has been used more widely to define teamwork in these more complex environments. You could also consider matrix team as a variant of a virtual team.

Matrix team working can incorporate a number of dimensions, including

  • Cross functional matrix teams – where team members come from different organizational functions and are led by a particular “activity leader” who they may not have a formal reporting line to. An example would be a cross functional problems solving team working on a business issue that impacts a number of functions. This simple form of matrix team may operate within a single location.
  • Functional matrix teams – where individuals from the same function need to cooperate across an internal matrix such as HR specialists, all of whom are within the HR function, but normally working in different business units, product groups or regions. They may come together to advance a particular functional activity or interest such as developing a common group wide policy.
  • Global matrix teams – where individuals from different functions, countries, time zones and cultures come together to solve a common problem. An example might be a matrix team solving a problem for a global customer which requires input from different functions and regions. A global matrix team is in among the most complex form to manage.
  • Extended matrix teams – where individuals from different organizations need come together to solve common problems. An example might be a supply chain team that incorporates suppliers, partners and customers. These matrix teams need to manage the additional dynamic of operating across traditional organizational boundaries and commercial considerations.

Depending on the complexity of how you define your matrix team, you may be working across barriers of distance, cultures (functional, national or corporate), time zones, organizational complexity and communicating through technology.

It is essential to have a clear matrix team definition in order to concentrate on which factors you need to develop for matrix success. Depending on the precise mix of barriers that your matrix team faces you may require a different blend of skills in both leadership and collaboration.

  • Leaders of matrix teams need to exercise influence without authority and deliver results without having direct control over the resources they need to achieve.
  • Matrix team members need to learn how to collaborate with colleagues across distance, cultures and other barriers.

Matrix team members often suffer from the problem of divided loyalties where they have both team and functional goals that compete for their time and attention and multiple bosses. They will also typically have both functional and the team element to their measures of success. For some matrix team members this may be the first time they have been given accountability for results that are broader than delivery of their functional goals. Some individuals relish the breath and development that the matrix team offers and others feel exposed and out of control.

The secret of matrix team successes in the skills and ways of working that evolve to be successful in this complex environment. In order to be successful we should focus less on the structure and more and behaviours.

In “Making the matrix work – how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity” Kevan Hall identifies some of the key skills and ways of working necessary to matrix teams success, including how we develop a matrix mindset and matrix skill set to support this more complex matrix team definition.

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