Matrix Management

Getting comfortable with ambiguity

When we work with organisations new to matrix management, one of the key requests from their people is to improve the clarity of their goals and roles. This can lead to what we call the clarity trap.

In this situation we have introduced a multidimensional structured way of working, such as a matrix or network organisation, to deal with the fact that our environment is complex. When I ask people what is more important; the global or the local, the region or the country, the function or the business unit the answer is always the same – “it depends”.

In this complex environment it’s a fallacy to expect neatly drawn job descriptions and clear prioritisation from above. Each dimension of the business is pursuing slightly different goals or the same goals from a different perspective. It is usually only the individual at the point of intersection that sees these misalignments.

I meet many organisations who, following a matrix implementation, spend a lot of time doing endless RACI analyses to define roles, accountabilities and decision rights. These large-scale exercises rarely work. In a fast-moving environment things change and any RACI analysis is probably out of date on the dates finished or it’s been conducted on the wrong topic.

Indeed, it often seems as though these kinds of requests are actually a symptom of resistance to change and reluctance to take responsibility.

Furthermore, this may be sending a mixed message to individuals – “we have introduced a multidimensional way of working to deal flexibly with complexity – now let’s try to eliminate that complexity through rigid job descriptions and roles”

Our message is usually that it won’t be as clear as it was in the past. Yes, we need to establish some critical elements of clarity but we also need to get more comfortable with ambiguity. In addition, we need the people at the point of intersection of these different reporting lines to have the confidence and the ability to create their own clarity.

If you have two or more bosses, or work on several different virtual teams you may be the only individual with a full understanding of your role and its priorities. If you try to solve problems through escalation you will not get much done.

This has huge implications for goal setting and measures of success. Under the old paradigms goals we established at the beginning of the year and your metrics tended to focus on optimising your own functional business numbers. In a more ambiguous environment goals are unlikely to be SMART, they will need to be continuously updated and measures of success are likely to be set at a higher level, looking at the optimisation of performance across your organisation rather than just your small part of it.

A lot of traditional management focuses on eliminating ambiguity. In order to encourage people to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, we need to be able to tolerate higher levels of risk and deal with mistakes positively.

We also need to pay attention to escalation. People escalate issues when they lack the capability or confidence to make decisions for themselves, or when they reach a previously established control level. If we encourage escalation, people will often respond to ambiguity by pushing decisions of the hierarchy for resolution. If they do this, not only will it create delay and dissatisfaction, they will also never develop the judgement skills necessary to respond appropriately to ambiguous situations.

Paradoxically, we may need less clarity from the top in order to encourage the ability to deal with ambiguity in the vital middle of the organisation where many of these trade-offs and daily dilemmas are resolved.

As well as the mind-set of embracing ambiguity, we also need to give people the skill set required to succeed in this more complex environment – to create their own clarity, to manage accountability without control, to resolve trade-offs and dilemmas successfully and to deal with conflict.

All this starts with recognition that a level of ambiguity is normal and indeed desirable in a complex organisation.

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