Matrix Management

Is a Matrix a precondition for agile?

There is a lot of focus on agile working these days with autonomous teams delivering highly focused time bounded sprints to deliver discrete outcomes.

But an organization is more than just the sum of its teams and even agile pioneers like Spotify recognize that these teams need to operate within a dynamic matrix.

But hold on, doesn’t the matrix add complexity and make it harder to get fast decisions and focus amidst competing goals? Well it can, if you choose to implement it that way.

The reality in a complex organization is that there is a lot of stuff that needs doing above and between individual teams. It’s all very well to focus on your team’s specific deliverables, but the other stuff still needs doing if we want to coordinated and effective at an organizational level.

If we only focus on dedicated cross functional teams, how will functional capability be grown for the future? Who will develop the next generation of engineers and finance specialists? Who will manage prioritization between teams and develop the strategy that stitches them together and gives meaning?

I read blogs and articles telling me that middle managers will become redundant in agile or can only exist as “servant leaders” to their teams. Can’t say I have seen this in action yet, and good luck getting your talented and ambitious middle managers to apply for that role.

Unpopular as it may be there is a lot of valuable corporate and organizational stuff that still needs doing above the level of the team.

Leading agile organization use tribes (business units), guilds (communities of interest or practice) and chapters (functions) to do this work and, far from being 100% dedicated to their autonomous teams, individuals have affiliations and connections to all of these entities. Whatever you choose to call it, it is a matrix in practice.

It might be an engineer’s dream to be on an autonomous team that doesn’t answer to anyone outside the team and insulates people from the “corporate bull” – but it’s no way to run a complex business.

I would argue that you cannot be agile without a dynamic matrix as a precondition – to connect the organization horizontally across the silos and to ensure that this longer term infrastructure is well managed.

If not, then we may just create new “agile silos” that are hard to integrate with the rest of the business (we are already seeing some examples of this) and that’s the very opposite of agility.

It’s a big trick to be both connected and flexible, if you want some ideas on how to do this, give us a call.

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