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How to Survive and Thrive in a Matrix Organization

In the hit 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix, Keanu Reeves’ Neo wakes up in an entirely new and unfamiliar world in which he must learn to adjust to his new surroundings, and eventually master his new domain in order to ensure his survival. If you have ever worked in or held a leadership position in a matrix organization, you may feel a bit like the newly awoken Neo — confused, disoriented and wondering what to do next.

What Is a Matrix Organization?

A Matrix Organization is one in which there are multiple managerial accountability and responsibility systems — some managers report to two bosses rather than a single chain of command. Popularized by the tech industry, where multidisciplinary teams work on individual projects, a matrix structure is a great way to save money when resources are limited.

There are many benefits to a matrix structure — the ability to focus on multiple business goals, the smooth exchange of information, accelerated response to functional needs and to innovation, to name a few. But there are also challenges, especially for those employees and leaders who are accustomed to a more traditional organizational structure. Matrix organizations are complex, difficult to monitor and control and often experience conflicting goals — and conflicting guidance from leadership.

Surviving the Matrix

When you are a leader in a matrix organization, there are certain survival skills necessary to successfully navigate this new world. Communication, above all, is the key — you must be willing to learn from others, to ask questions, have an open viewpoint, communicate, develop listening skills and empathize with those around you. While Morpheus may not be around to guide you through The Matrix, developing the following five skillsets will help you achieve your goals and help build a successful matrix organization.

Be Open to Learning from Others

Matrix organizations are often populated with specialists and subject matter experts. While this is intended to ensure focus, it can result in employees and leaders walling themselves off from those who don’t share their specialty. This can lead to a variety of issues, including information stove-piping and lack of continuity. Employees and leaders who open themselves up to learning from others outside of their specialty can help drive a culture of collaboration and communication — which will drive a more efficient and ultimately successful team.

Be Willing to Ask “Fearless” Questions

In a previous article, I discussed the importance of “curious leadership” and asking fearless questions — the hard questions. The ones you might not want to hear the answers to. Fearless questioning is incredibly important in a matrix organization, especially when issues begin to arise. As a leader in a matrix organization, learning the art of fearless questioning will help you guide your employees and your company through difficult issues that arise.

Communicate Through Technology

Nobody likes meetings. Nobody. While they are necessary in some cases, a better way to communicate in a matrix organization is through technology. It’s quick, direct and efficient — and most importantly, it won’t annoy those who are working hard (and sometimes alone) on critical projects. Using instant messaging platforms like Slack and others, leadership and teams can communicate and share files in real time, without going through the process of scheduling and executing long meetings. Utilizing technology to communicate will ensure everyone is on the same team, and no information gets lost in silos.

Empower Others

Traditional organizations normally have top-down leadership, where each level of the organization must delegate and approve tasks. In a matrix organization, it’s important to empower those at every level of the business. After all, these are the subject matter experts that are working on the individual projects. Giving them more leeway to proceed how they see fit will help move things along and help drive innovation in your organization.

See the Big Picture

For leaders, developing a broader strategy when it comes to business goals can help insulate a matrix organization from loss of focus — or misplaced focus. Managing a variety of cross-functional teams is easier and more effective when there is a singular, organizational goal. When you see the big picture, each management decision becomes easier — and ultimately, more effective.

Looking for advice on how to thrive as a leader in your organization? Contact us today.

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