Working Effectively in a Matrix Organization

Agile. Streamlined. Connected. All of these words are being used to describe the goals of organizations as they moving from a strict command-and-control top-down hierarchy to one that is more nuanced. Often the resulting organization is one that is called a “matrix.”

Matrix organizations can bring big business benefits. According to a 2011 survey by the Corporate Leadership Council, business units that are effective at collaboration outperform those that are not on both revenue targets and employee engagement. And according to PGi, collaboration with those outside the team results in 35% greater innovation and creativity. But what is a matrix and what can be done to help ensure it is effective?

A Matrix Organization, Defined

By definition, a matrix organization is one that facilitates the horizontal flow of skills and information. Historically, this structure was used for management of large projects or even product development processes, allowing companies to draw employees in from different disciplines to work together without shifting the formal reporting lines. With the shift into the Social Era, however, and the need for faster, more agile structures and higher levels of collaboration, more companies are shifting to this matrix model as their primary organization design.

Employees in a matrix organization generally have at least two “reporting lines” or directions of responsibility. One focus is with a horizontal organization, who usually manage projects, products or business units across departmental boundaries. The other is a more traditional, vertical organization, usually with a department head, where employees report on their overall performance. The horizontal structure, where reporting lines are less formal, are often identified as the “matrix” and it is in this organization that things can get a bit messy.

Building a Matrix Community

To be effective in a matrix structure, organizations need to build a real community that connects the team of people who are working together from differing parts of the business. Regular communication is key to the community’s success. Here are five additional steps to maximizing a matrix organization’s effectiveness:

  1. Identify a community manager: Matrix organizations imply reduced formal hierarchy but that doesn’t mean roles and responsibilities shouldn’t be clear. The most important role in a matrix community is the community manager – a person to bring the community together and take a lead in the coordination. Depending on the business or organization, this is often is a product manager, area segment lead, or someone who feels they have high co-dependency across the group. This person does not need to be in any formal leadership role.
  2. Co-define purpose and goals: To maintain energy and commitment across your matrix, you need to have a shared purpose and goals. By bringing the group together and defining this early on in the community’s existence, you get increased engagement from the matrix team members. What value do people see from this community? What can this team achieve by coming together?
  3. Plan for regular connections: It’s easy to let matrix community meetings slide when formal hierarchy demands are competing for time, but regular communication and connection is essential to a matrix organization’s success. Even if you feel you don’t have anything to cover, it’s worth meeting briefly to see what emerges from the community. Often an empty agenda allows concerns and questions to emerge that otherwise may have been left unspoken.
  4. Reach collective agreement: In so far as possible, matrix organizations should be trusted and empowered. Shared accountability leads to increased levels of trust. The community manager should practice leading from the back – allowing members of the community to step up and lead in areas where they have passion and energy. The most effective matrix communities tap into members’ energy and passion, leveraging the virtual team to own and drive initiatives.
  5. Focus on principles, not rules: Given the importance of tapping into community members’ passions and empowering your virtual team, it’s probably not surprising that your matrix will be more effective if you concentrate on establishing guiding principles together instead of detailing exactly how results should be achieved. This isn’t to say you should relax expectations – it’s fine to be very clear and precise around the end goals that are expected from the community – but then allow for flexibility and creativity around how these are achieved. This freedom gives space for innovation, greater levels of engagement and deeper commitment from all of the matrix.