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Rethinking Matrix Organizations to Reduce Uncertainty
By Richard Lepsinger

More companies today are adopting a matrix structure-one that rewards collaborators over “lone wolves.” In a matrix organization, employees often have dual reporting relationships rather than one established boss and responsibilities are coordinated across departments or teams, rather than in a solely vertical arrangement. In addition, although work relationships have historically resembled a grid, today the matrix structure can be more complex and look more like a network or conglomerate.

The matrix has worked well for some of the world’s most successful companies, including General Electric, Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble and Cisco. One key advantage is the opportunity to share resources and expertise more efficiently, which can save both time and money. But this structure is not without its flaws.

The most common complaint among employees and leaders in a matrix organization is it lacks clarity.

“To ensure leadership is effective, you need organizational clarity-short decision paths, a smaller number of committees, and above all, an unequivocal allocation of responsibilities,” said professor and consultant Guido Quelle in a Businessweek opinion column. “Matrix organizations feature exactly the opposite characteristics, which results in a high degree of complexity, unclear decision paths, unproductive agreement processes, and most worrisome, nontransparent responsibilities.”

That’s a hefty indictment against the matrix.

It’s true a matrix naturally breeds more uncertainty over who is in charge because there are multiple stakeholders and employees have dual reporting relationships. There can be conflicting interests and not enough action. We believe, however, organizations can succeed within a matrix as long as they address the uncertainties head-on.

We agree with International Institute for Management Development Professor Emeritus Jay R. Galbraith, who famously said, “Organization structures do not fail; managements fail to implement them correctly.”

The key is to incorporate some elements of a traditional hierarchy structure and use them to your advantage.

Here are three tips for working well within a matrix structure.

  1. Set Shared Goals

    Working in a matrix requires you to build partnerships with others outside your department or job function. Doing so is in your best interest and the interest of the entire organization, which is depending on these partnerships to effectively share resources and knowledge. A matrix cannot work if teams continue to operate with a silo mentality, where each department is entirely focused on its own goals and evaluated accordingly. This slows down the entire process and keeps your team from achieving its overall objectives.

    That’s why it’s so important to take the time to set shared goals with your matrix partners before you set them for your own department. Once you’ve set your own department goals, it’s more difficult to adjust your focus to meet the needs of the rest of the organization. Setting shared goals and then establishing departmental goals based on those will ensure your organization is working toward a unified vision.

  2. Clarify Roles and Responsibilities

    Embrace the fact that a matrix offers more opportunity for collaboration, but don’t allow too many decision makers to cloud your focus. Have a candid discussion to define the roles necessary to accomplish your goals, and put it in writing. With each new project, determine who will have final decision authority. Who will initiate activity and coordinate the work? Whose input needs to be collected to ensure the decision maker has all the relevant information? Who needs to be informed after a decision has been made?

    Taking the time to consider these questions and bring everyone into agreement will eliminate the frustration that can occur when someone is left out of an important decision. This will also ensure progress on the project does not lose momentum and that the best decisions are made for the right reasons and that people agree with and support those decisions.

  3. Ensure Transparency

    Your leaders or team members can only make informed decisions to the extent that they have all the resources and information they need. Establish a plan for how you will communicate with key stakeholders in the project. Does everyone have the appropriate contacts? What information will your team members need to meet key milestones within a project or process?

    Will interactions take place by email, over the phone or in person? Who else needs to be included in the discussion? What are the expectations for responding and securing approvals so you’re able to meet the deadline?

    By putting your plan in writing and distributing it to everyone involved, you’ll eliminate misunderstandings and excuses.

If your company has recently adopted a matrix structure or is struggling within an existing structure, an organizational consulting firm can help you identify areas where your team can improve its performance and use the matrix to its best advantage to become more profitable.

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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