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Managing in A Matrix: How to Lead When You Lack Authority
By Richard Lepsinger

When General Electric’s leaders pioneered the matrix more than four decades ago, they acknowledged they were setting themselves up for challenges.

In fact, the company called them out right in its Organization Planning Bulletin from September, 1976:

“We’ve highlighted matrix organization, not because it’s a bandwagon that we want you all to jump on, but rather that it’s a complex, difficult, and sometimes frustrating form of organization to live with. It’s also, however, a bellwether of things to come. But, when implemented well, it does offer much of the best of both worlds. And all of us are going to have to learn how to utilize organization to prepare managers to increasingly deal with high levels of complexity and ambiguity in situations where they have to get results from people and components not under their direct control…

Successful experience in operating under a matrix constitutes better preparation for an individual to run a huge diversified institution like General Electric-where so many complex, conflicting interests must be balanced-than the product and functional modes which have been our hallmark over the past twenty years.”

These insights were groundbreaking at the time, yet they still ring true today. One of the biggest challenges of working in a matrix is the higher degree of uncertainty that occurs when authority isn’t clearly defined. Within a “team of leaders” pushing their own agendas, conflicting priorities and a lack of traditional reporting relationships can quickly bring progress to a halt.

If you’ve ever tried to lead a project that involved representatives from multiple departments, you’re already well aware of the challenges. Here are five solutions that can make it easier to lead when you don’t have established authority.

  1. Establish Shared Goals

    Members of cross-functional teams often bring their own agendas to the table. Those priorities are not always aligned, and they might even be at odds with each other, setting the stage for conflict. This often happens between sales and marketing, who are being judged by a different set of metrics.

    Before beginning any team project, take time to clarify the primary objectives, how they will be measured and how achieving those objectives will benefit everyone.

    If it’s possible, determine how success can be tied to shared incentives.

  2. Clarify Roles and Decision Authority

    Take time to share job descriptions and communicate primary responsibilities within the team.

    Most importantly, clarify who will have decision authority for each major task the team will need to accomplish, who needs to be involved in approvals and who will move the process forward.

  3. Build Strong Relationships Based on Trust

    Influencing is easier and more effective when you’ve developed strong personal relationships and trust among team members.

    Make the effort to get to know everyone on your team on a personal level, even if you’re working together remotely. Make time for quick, casual conversations that aren’t work related.

  4. Use the Right Approach

    Your success in leading others, especially a team of your peers, largely depends on your ability to influence them. Some influence tactics such as reasoning and consulting are highly effective within a matrix, while others such as pressure and legitimating almost never work.

    There is no one tactic that works in every situation. For instance, reasoning, the most commonly used tactic among successful leaders, requires a certain level of credibility. If you lack experience in a particular area or are new to the team, using another tactic, such as consulting, is likely to have better results.

  5. Hold People Accountable

    With no means of managing accountability in a cross functional team, execution quickly falls apart. Using the ATC model of Action, Timetable and Checkpoints (think Air Traffic Controller) can help ensure everyone is set up for success and able to meet their commitments.

    First, define expected outcomes and agree on who will be responsible for carrying them out. Set a clear due date and timeline. You can’t hold people accountable if expectation and timeframes have not been made explicit. Finally, don’t wait until the due date, check in with your team members periodically at key milestones to see where they stand. This is a good opportunity to pinpoint any potential roadblocks, such as a lack of resources necessary to complete the task, and find out what you can do to assist.

Leading a team of your peers comes with some unique challenges, but it can also bring opportunities. You are likely to enjoy greater transparency, more shared resources and the potential for stronger ideas to emerge from a higher degree of collaboration.

These are just a few reasons why the matrix organization continues to prove successful for GE and many of the world’s largest companies.

Richard Lepsinger is President of OnPoint Consulting and has a twenty-five year track record of success as a human resource consultant and executive. The focus of Rick’s work has been on helping organizations close the gap between strategy and execution, work effectively in a matrix organization and lead and collaborate in a virtual environment.

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