Making the Matrix WORK – Clarity

“How can I be accountable for something I don’t control?”
“How can I get things done without authority?”

Welcome to the matrix, where multiple bosses, competing goals, influence without authority, and accountability without control are the norm. It is a world where skills, not structure, are the drivers of business and personal success.

At its simplest, a matrix reflects the reality that work no longer fits within the traditional “vertical” structures of function and geography. In a matrix, we routinely work with colleagues from different locations, business units, and cultures in cross-functional and virtual teams.

Structure should always follow strategy. The key advantages that organizations seek when introducing a matrix structure are:

  • To break the silos: increase cooperation and communication across traditional vertical silos and to unlock resources and talent that are currently inaccessible to the rest of the organization
  • To deliver “horizontal work” more effectively: to serve global customers, manage supply chains that extend outside the organization, and run integrated business regions, functions, and processes
  • To be able to respond more flexibly: to reflect the importance in the structure of both the global and the local, the business and the function, and to respond quickly to changes in priorities
  • To develop broader people capabilities: a matrix helps us develop individuals with broader perspectives and skills, who can deliver value across the business and manage in a more complex interconnected environment

The disadvantages include:

  • Lack of accountability
  • Unclear goals and roles
  • Delays in decision making (too many people getting involved)
  • Increase in bureaucracy (a proliferation of meetings and committees)
  • Increase in uncertainty and conflict

Both the advantages and disadvantages of the matrix are fundamentally about people and the way they work together.

Organizations that ignore skills and seek a structural solution on its own can remain stuck in an endless cycle of reorganizations, which not only fail to solve the problem, but make it worse by disrupting the networks and relationships that really get things done.


“Why talk to someone with a job title, when you can talk to someone with an answer?”

Traditional management emphasizes clear goals, roles, and direction. What could be wrong with that ?
In a matrix, we deliberately trade some clarity for increased flexibility.
Goals set in January to bet SMART may be too simplistic for a complex, fast-changing environment and bay be out of date by February.
Matrix managers need to create sufficient clarity and alignment to be effective and at the same time, need to give people the ability to manage tradeoffs, dilemmas, and conflicts, as these become more likely in matrix working.

ARCI/RACI in the matrix – Accountable, Responsible, Consulted, Informed
Patterns to watch for

PatternIn tasksIn roles
Too many AsInterference and confusionUnclear organizational structure
Too many RsOverlaps of rolesOverwork
No Rs or AsGaps in the system or unnecessary workIs this role necessary?
Too many Cs and IsUnnecessary information flowsIs this role necessary?

Difficult decisions – the 5 choices framework – based on the understanding that, whenever we are looking at what appear to be two polar alternatives, we really have 5 choices in how we resolve them:

  1. Choose option A
  2. Choose option B
  3. Compromise
  4. Choose to do nothing
  5. Find a higher-level combination of the options that satisfies both A and B

How do we storm remotely?
One of the simplest models of team development was proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965. Teams go through 4 phases, each of which needs to be resolved before we achieve high performance:

  1. Form – we create a team and people start to work together and find out about each other
  2. Storm – individuals share their different ideas and perspectives and there may be disagreements on goals, ways of working, and so on. This might be quite a mild process or it could lead to major disagreements based around misunderstandings or unresolved issues.
  3. Norm – we develop agreed ways of working and shared values; team members buy into these collectively
  4. Perform – only when we have resolved each of the previous stages can we really become a high-performing team

The big challenge in distributed teams is: “When do we get to storm?” We need the skills to create opportunities for conflict to arise and be resolved effectively.
It is essential that we enable the storming and norming phases of the process to happen close together. Once the issues have been “stormed”, it is important to make the time to develop new norms, new ways of working, that prevent these problems from happening again in the future.
To promote storming and norming, one can hold specific events designed to allow this to happen quickly in a managed, usually face-to-face environment.

Inexperienced leaders or individuals who are conflict averse may try to suppress the storming phase, as it can feel risky and unpleasant. However, if storming does not happen and new norms are not developed, the team will get stuck at the storming phase: conflicts will not be resolved and will reoccur. It is important to let each of these phases happen.

Individuals from cultures where group harmony is important may be deeply uncomfortable with an open storming phase. In cross-cultural teams it may be necessary to have one-on-one discussions with individuals, rather than making storming a collective process.

The 5 conflict modes – Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes Instrument

Accommodating – an individual who sacrifices their own needs to satisfy those of the other
Avoiding – an individual who doesn’t deal with conflict or withdraws
Collaborating – someone who works with the other to find a solution that satisfies both
Compromising – someone who tries to find some other way that partially satisfies each individual
Competing – a person who pursues their own concerns at the others expense

It is usually fairly straightforward to spot which style an individual is using:

  • Competing and avoiding behaviors are unlikely to resolve serious conflicts or power struggles
  • Compromise can sometimes solve small issues, but each party has to be prepared to give up something, so the solution is often not optimal and may not be sustainable in ongoing relationships
  • Ideally, it is possible to find collaborative solutions that are stable and enduring

One of the key challenges in matrix management is creating alignment of goals and roles. Kevan Hall talks about how companies create alignment in a matrix.

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