Matrix Management

Life in a Matrix Podcast: Matrix Working

In this podcast on matrix working, Kevan Hall, CEO of Global Integration, examines the issues facing individuals working in matrix organizations, and summarises some of the skills people need to develop in order to address them. Please note this dates form 2010 so we have 10 more years of thinking to add, our latest ideas are here

Abridged transcript for anyone reading on RSS or via a mobile – player at bottom of page.

What do you mean by matrix working?

We make a clear distinction between what we call matrix working and the matrix structure.

Matrix working is work that crosses the traditional vertical reporting lines of function and geography.  So cross-functional virtual teams and international working are all examples of matrix working.  Some companies then go on to use a formal matrix organization structure, where someone will have multiple reporting lines and several bosses.  Matrix working is now everywhere.  Matrix structures are increasingly the structure of choice for large, complex organizations.

What is different about working in this matrix style?

Matrix working has big consequences for both leadership and team co-operation.(There is further information about these issues on our website.  In this podcast I’m going to focus on personal effectiveness skills – the skills that individuals need to succeed in this complex environment.

What are the new skills that people need to be successful in this environment?

We use a model called the matrix pyramid to describe this.  At the top of the pyramid is understanding your matrix.  We work with clients to make sure individuals have a very clear understanding of why they are working in a matrix, how is it likely to affect them, and what are the advantages and challenges both for the organization and for them personally.  We find that even when companies have communicated their matrix objectives and structure well, it’s still important to give individuals time to understand it and apply it to their own circumstances.

What’s next?

Next, we focus on how participants build, engage and work their networks.  Networks are how things really get done in a matrix, not through the formal structure.  We train participants to map and analyse their networks: the ones they really need to get things done.

There are also some new insights coming from the field of social network analysis on the characteristics and principles of effective networks, which we can share.  Then we move on and look at five what you might call supporting skills that form the basis of the matrix pyramid.

What do you mean by “supporting skills”?

These are the suite of tools and skills you need to improve personal effectiveness in this matrixed, networked environment.

The first is managing ambiguity.  A matrix is characterised by competing objectives, multiple reporting lines and a generally higher level of ambiguity than simpler, functional organizations. Managing this involves making sure you get the information you need to resolve ambiguity where you can.  And part is learning to accept that not everything is clear –  and how you deal with this.

The second supporting skill is learning how to shape your own role, because in a matrix we have several bosses and a wider range of perspectives and career options.  We need to take more personal control over shaping both our current and future roles.  People who draw their boxes too tightly tend not to be successful in an ambiguous matrix environment.

How do people really get things done in this type of ambiguous environment?

A matrix undermines traditional hierarchy and authority.  To animate your matrix network you need to exercise influence without authority.  People who rely too much on traditional power and authority tend to be unsuccessful in a matrix, where expertise, relationships and influence become much more powerful.

Why do you think that authority is a less efficient way of getting things done in a matrix?

Partly because activities such as teams and projects don’t reflect the traditional reporting lines any more, and partly because authority is shared between multiple bosses.  And the skills of managing multiple bosses is the fourth supporting skill.  As individuals in the matrix, we have to make sure our bosses are aligned, and that they’re confident to delegate to us and leave us  to get on with things.  I sometimes call this ‘earning the right to be left alone’.

So what is the fifth supporting skill?

The final supporting skill is managing competing priorities.  Multiple reporting lines and different demands on our time means that goals and objectives may compete and even conflict.  In matrix working we need to resolve or escalate these conflicts in a  positive way, so we don’t look incompetent.

Are these challenges are in addition to your daytime job?

It does sound more complex, but the reward is often in broader and more rewarding roles for individuals.  In order to make the matrix really work, we need ensure that individuals have the skills, the authority and the information to make decisions and be effective.

What happens if we don’t?

Expect to see a lot of escalation and delay in decision-making!

See our interactive learning path on matrix working

Note: page updated 2020

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