Matrix Management

Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s not clear

In the UK, whenever restrictions due to the coronavirus change, we always see members of the public on the news complaining that the rules are not clear.

People who went on overseas vacations in the summer, surely knowing they were running some risk in the middle of a pandemic, complained they had to return home early or self-isolate when the rules changed about which countries were considered safe.

Many complained bitterly at how confusing and unclear it was that the rules were different in England, Scotland and Wales and that they had the cheek to change the rules when they were on holiday.

As the rules in each of those individual countries were pretty clear at the time, the only confusion should really be for people who don’t know what country they live in – a rather bigger clarity problem!

It is a common pattern, when people do not like the rules, they consider them to be confusing and unclear.

By the way, this is not to give a free pass to all the advice that the UK (and other) governments give, some of it has been poor and politically motivated. Those who know me may be surprised that I am giving any credit to politicians at all. However, it is a genuinely tough job balancing the needs of the economy and the health of individuals and society. Sometimes when the facts change it makes sense to change your advice.

It is only in politics where learning and improving is considered a U-turn and requires you to resign. As Paul Samuelson, Nobel Prize winning economist said. “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

In general, given the complexity of the situation, the advice has been pretty clear. The thing that people struggle with that they don’t like it and it changes over time.

We see this in our work in matrix organisation implementations. People are constantly saying things are not clear but when we press them for specific tangible examples of what is not clear they often struggle to identify real issues.

To paraphrase (and mangle further) Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “known unknowns”, if you can be clear about what is not clear then it’s often possible to clarify it. You cannot clarify a general concern such as “ownership is a problem in this business” or “it’s the culture that gets in the way “. But if we get down to specific cases, “it’s not clear who has to give approval to recruit within the finance function in the UK” then it’s very often possible to identify someone who you can ask or, if not, who you can make a proposal to.

Complaining about a lack of clarity is often a sign of resistance from people who do not like the clarity they are getting or who are concerned that this clarity changes. Constant change is a reality in modern organisations, we need to manage the dynamic tension between the needs of our customers, employees and other stakeholders. We need to balance the needs of the geography, business unit and the function (that is why we have a matrix).  Depending on the issue and the context the situation will, quite properly, change.

If you employ the kind of people who like to have their box tightly drawn, a RACI analysis for everything before they get started and their job description rigid, then they are not a good fit to a complex dynamic environment. We may do them no favours by trying to create an illusion of fixed clarity.

If you would like to train your people how to improve their own clarity, take ownership for their goal and roles and push back at ambiguity then please click on the Embracing Ambiguity module in the “steps” image on our interactive matrix management training path, or get in touch to find out more

We are all living in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic, don’t be surprised if what is clear one week is changed the next. None of us like it but it does not mean that at any one time the advice is not clear.

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