Agile & Digital

Why is matrix a challenge and digital an opportunity?

When we work with managers in large organizations to develop new ways of working we see a big difference in how they respond to the need for matrix and digital/agile working.

When they talk about matrix working, managers often initially see this as a problem, maybe even a fad (despite the fact that nearly all major organizations operate some form of matrix working). We hear regular challenges – is this necessary, is this right for us, why do we need to change?

Managers new to the matrix are often concerned about accountability without control and influence without authority. Working across functions and other silos is seen as a challenge that causes additional work.

By contrast the need for agile and digital transformation is rarely challenged; people readily accept it as an imperative. The pace of change and faster technology adoption can be a concern. However, the idea of working in cross functional teams, cutting across the  business to develop value for customers, adopting more autonomy and a less hierarchical management style are usually seen as attractive.

But if you compare the two lists they are pretty much the same, the concerns of matrix working are seen as opportunities in digital working. If you can’t work across business boundaries, overcome legacy hierarchical silos and collaborate in a complex environment you can’t succeed in either matrix or agile/digital working.

So why are the two ways of working received differently? In our experience being able to master matrix working is an essential precondition for digital working. We find that companies trying to leap straight from traditional ways of working to agile and digital ways of working discover a skill gap in how to lead and collaborate in this more horizontal and connected world. We can call it matrix management or digital leadership but the skill set is very similar.

Maybe one significant difference is that matrix implementations tends initially to focus on structure change and therefore confronts issues of power and control more explicitly. Managers often struggle to give up traditional power and control.

Digital tends to focus on technology and on collaboration and more autonomous teamwork so it feels less threatening to the established status quo. However in the longer term digital ways of working are no respecters of silos and hierarchy and will undermine traditional leadership more completely than the matrix ever did.

We strongly support the focus on collaboration rather than the obsession with structure, power and control which often accompanies a matrix implementation. Forget reporting lines and focus on getting things done for customers.

However, be in no doubt “the empire will strike back”. We need to balance the power of out traditional hierarchy, silos and legacy command and control cultures to succeed at both the matrix and digital transformation.

Maybe it is easier to badge all this skill development as “digital leadership” or “creating the more connected organization” which sounds more aspirational and future focused rather than calling it “matrix” which can sound more daunting or trigger historical and potentially negative stereotypes

Whether we call it matrix, agile or digital, most organizations need a change to their ways of working and an upgrade in skills and corporate culture in order to sustain success.

You can see the content of our bite sized learning paths for managers and teams making the transition to matrix and agile/digital ways of working here.

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