On living in a matrix

Life in a matrix can be great.

A matrix structure works well when people can enjoy working without the traditional hierarchies, cutting across traditional boundaries, and so have access to pools of expertise and feel empowered.

Sadly too many people see the matrix negatively.They associate the matrix, which after all is simply a way of describing a more complex, less hierarchical structure, with some of the problems it is brought in to resolve.

For example, management may have decided to downsize, to restructure, to impose travel restrictions or to relocate people at the same time as changing to a matrix structure: all of these things can be either reasons for, or symptoms of, imposing a matrixed structure.

Unfortunately we’ve seen far too many consultants walk in, tell people they need a matrix structure, help the company put it in place and walk away with very little regard for the important part – the people who are going to keep it working.

Moving to a matrix is usually a difficult transition to make, and unpolished self-management or line management skills then make matrix living in a matrix uncomfortable. And I use the word unpolished advisedly: learning to cope with several managers, ambiguous and multiple pressures and crossing cultural divides can initially be daunting, but very easily resolved with some good training.

Unfortunately it’s the poor old matrix that gets blamed for the problems – which is a bit like blaming a phone for the fact that no-one’s answering.

The first port of call for anyone wanting a happier matrix is to explain to people why that structure is there, how it works, and to understand its goals. Just giving it a name can help – it’s an indication that this is not an uncommon situation and both the good and bad bits are as normal as any other business challenge. Big companies like Microsoft, Unilever, Vodafone, IBM and Procter and Gamble all have matrixed structures.

Indeed, Procter and Gamble (a company which I used to work for) is a great example: they make detergents, cosmetics, baby nappies and more. They have pools of skilled resources to call upon – their products are possibly more important than geographies, and when implemented well, there is little of the duplication prevalent in less efficient organizations.

Additional complexities within matrixed structures include signoffs, sharing resources which can be stretched to the limit, and ‘dotted line’ responsibilities.

The flip side of this is that real influence and value starts to lie not in where you are in the hierarchy (although this doesn’t vanish completely, it must be stressed) but the value you bring to the people you work with. The ‘kudos’ isn’t with title, but in becoming a skilled resource, valued by colleagues.

Most people, once they’ve understood and feel comfortable with matrix structures, feel empowered. They learn to say no, to cope with ambiguity and to manage their multiple ‘bosses’, whilst revelling in faster sign off, greater autonomy and responsibility, and understanding where they fit. Being able to influence without formal authority is a hugely valuable life skill.

Article by John Bland, a Director of Global Integration, which trains teams and individuals to manage themselves and others within complex organizations.

He can be contacted by email: john [at] www.global-integration.com

John can also be found on LinkedIn

On living in a matrix

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