I first wrote “Life in the Matrix” in 2000 — well before the emergence of flattering imitation. This brief, easy-to-read pamphlet was introduced expressly for employees who are given matrix assignments and for those who manage them, as a job-performance aid for mastering the matrix structure at the everyday level. Underwriters’ Laboratories and Pfizer have been among the quantity purchasers of this resource for such employees over the years.
The undergirding concept — then, as now — is that if a structure is not readily understandable by all who live within its intended roles and relationships, then it will surely collapse of its own weight. This simple fact is one reason for my steadfast belief that easy-to-understand implementation training and job-performance aids, coupled with occasional “tune-up” consultation and training is essential to success. Such is the straightforward consulting model employed here at Strategic Futures.
Yes, matrix management does have its complexities and, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, things should be made no more complex than they need to be but no simpler than they actually are.The fact is, front-line employees and their immediate managers can and should be spared many exquisite matrix management complexities — both for their sake and for the sake of the overall matrix organization’s performance.
Granted, there are special dynamics and tools which need to be mastered by the leadership team to make matrix management work effectively. Indeed, it makes sense that these complexities are an appropriate focus of training and consultation when working with the executive audience. (Parenthetically, I have reviewed some materials that purport to be targeted to the executive audience, written at the “nosebleed” altitude, scarcely useful or understandable by anyone with the honesty to call it what it is: unhelpful balderdash).Bottom line? A failure to equip productive employees with easy-to-understand and easy-to-use principles and tools is to invite frustration and failure in getting the most and best of what matrix management has to offer. True mastery of these complexities by the leadership is best demonstrated by leaders who can apply and explain them to employees at all levels. Academic life is the right place for those who are happiest when understandable to a mere handful of people worldwide who specialize in a topic, and I say that with the utmost respect and occasional envy!
For those working at the speed of business, the fundamentals are what matter most, and they must be grasped fully and accurately — particularly by those who would design a successful matrix organization. Thereafter, we can master the complexities to fine-tune performance. A useful adage applies here: We must walk before we can run.
Matrix management presupposes collaborative communities, both within our organizations and among them when they are involved in strategic alliances and other multi-firm endeavors. Indeed, academic contributors are emphasizing the need to develop and nurture collaborative communities within your organization before you seek to form collaborative communities with external partners. Structurally, this is what I call the “multi-organization matrix” requiring that matrix management be well-practiced in each of the participating enterprises prior to linkage.
A matrix management success factor involves the nurturing of a “shared-fate culture” which both reflects and fosters collaboration among people and the functions they deliver. The successful shared-fate culture requires a clear set of values which promote teamwork and trust. The shared-fate culture presupposes that employees be both willing and able to cooperate with one another. Caution: This condition must not be assumed but instead must be cultivated consciously.
The oft-overlooked challenge in transforming towards collaborative communities is to avoid fostering a “group think” culture where conformity always trumps creativity. Indeed, a continuum of personalities must be factored. As one example, some employees may be “Dark Angels.” Dark Angels are often high producers who are viewed as significant assets by management precisely because their hard work leads to results, time after time. However, at the darkest end of this personality continuum such individuals can be more feared than trusted by their colleagues. Dark Angels can have a poisonous effect upon the formation of a collaborative community, let alone the shared-fate culture. Without reverting to the “cranky genius” caricature, it’s not unheard of for creativity to be accompanied by some anger and/or alienation. The leadership challenge is to find the right balance where collaboration does not degenerate into quasi-robotic conformity and ensure simultaneously that creativity is heightened rather than stifled. In other words, let’s keep everyone awake – conscious and creative.
I consult in many environments, particularly R&D but not exclusivel, where this delicate balance between creativity and community is a near-constant dynamic tension, which must be managed carefully. Pursuing our example, the iconic Dark Angel may harbor disdain for peers, subordinates, and top management. In the end, such disdain limits professional impact and, ultimately, professional advancement – thereby adding to this anger and alienation which will eclipse creativity in the end. We do not assist the Dark Angel, the organization nor ourselves when we fail to coach the Dark Angel into the collaborative community we seek to build. However, we must coach this talent in a way which strengthens rather than weakens their creativity, and which encourages them to participate collaboratively by being themselves – but in a way which permits acceptance of them for who they are and for who they are becoming by the community into which they have been integrated. A tall order—but it can be done. Although the Dark Angel is our example for this posting, these principles apply to us all, regardless of where we sit on any chosen continuum of personalities. Getting to creative and successful collaborative communities requires more than platitudinous exhortations and wishful thinking. Getting the job done requires genuine leadership, management and careful coaching.
Cross-functional teams pass the baton of work-in-progress back and forth across functions with regularity. Hopefully, they do it with synergy and in a way that avoids fumbles and fizzles that require rework. In addition, such avoidance of rework and achieving the benefits of synergy should be enjoyed at the working level. Such are the principles of horizontal alignment in a matrix organization.
I won’t attempt to identify all of the techniques that you can use to achieve these results in this space. However, there is one critical technique which is surprisingly underused. Where have major fumbles and fizzles occurred in the past? What hand-offs have resulted in dissatisfaction between or among functions? Which fumbles and fizzles have delayed delivery of a product or service? Which interfaces have detracted from the attainment of team goals and objectives?
Bring your team together and take a little trip down “Memory Lane,” answering the questions posed above. Do a post-mortem on things that have gone wrong in the past and then develop a “watch list” for use by management and staff alike to ensure that they go right in the future. Create an inventory for surveillance and control. Simple? Obvious? Perhaps. However, you might be astonished by the number of organizations that don’t avail themselves of this simple technique for making their matrix teams work more smoothly; your organization may be among their number.
Try it. You’ll like it.