Matrix Management

Less clarity, more uncertainty please

Making the Matrix Work word cloudPeople working in a matrix organization often feel as if their goals and roles are less clear than they were in the past. Companies spend a lot of time following a matrix management implementation using RACI analysis, role sort and job descriptions to try and restore clarity.

In fact we’ve learned this is a trap. A matrix is a deliberate choice to give up some clarity in return for more flexibility. The essence of the matrix is managing some permanent dilemmas; what should be global and what local, what is the priority between the function and the business unit? This does lead to more change and this is by design – the matrix enables us to work with these dilemmas and gives us a structure for managing them over time, not a permanent fixed solution.

In this context, to expect the next day to get back to business as usual and have a perfectly clear job description is unrealistic and probably unhealthy.

In order to be successful as a matrix manager we need to be comfortable with much higher levels of ambiguity and we need both the skills and support to manage trade-offs, dilemmas and conflict. Without these we will either have to escalate for decision or we can become passive “matrix victims” waiting for someone above to solve our problems. Neither of these are successful strategies.

When your people ask you for clarity, be careful you are not setting an expectation that you will clarify everything for them. An individual with two bosses may be the only person who actually understands their total role and they are certainly the only person who will spot competing goals or prioritization challenges. As a result, we have to push the responsibility for managing these trade-offs and dilemmas much further down the organization than in the past.

Critically we also have to support decisions made in an environment of uncertainty. High level goals, clear values and strong organizational trust can help. Fixed solutions and rigid job descriptions, however, are unlikely to be robust enough to endure over time.

During a period of change in my own organization I was repeatedly asked to choose either one thing or another and I rather dogmatically kept saying “both”; had I given clarity by choosing one it would free people up to ignore the other. In fact I did want both and I needed the people working for me to work out how to do this.

So if there are simple things that you genuinely can clarify, please do. But be careful not to build the expectation in the people in your matrix that you will get back to the same levels of clarity. We need to embrace ambiguity to make the matrix work.

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