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Mastering Matrix Management in the Age of Agility

Mastering Matrix Management in the Age of Agility

by Vibhas Ratanjee and Nate Dvorak

Story Highlights

  • Most companies are matrixed, but few achieve the advantages they should
  • Agility results from good matrix management and leadership
  • Trust, communication and leadership across teams are key

Gallup analytics finds 84% of U.S. employees are "matrixed" to some extent -- that is, they might work on multiple teams every day, reporting to the same or different managers.

An agile, matrixed structure can help companies be more nimble, as this approach emphasizes interdisciplinary functionality and enables workers to move from team to team as project needs demand.

A matrixed structure can be exceptionally good at focusing employees on a unified mission, vision and purpose. And, as our research shows, matrixed organizations tend to be very engaging -- employees who are part of highly matrixed teams are more engaged than non-matrixed workers.

But a poorly implemented or poorly managed matrix environment can introduce new challenges that negate the benefits the organization intended to gain. Getting the matrix structure right is all the more critical in today's age of digital disruption -- with shifting economies, increasing market pressures and an ever-pressing need for agility.

Improperly executed matrixed structures result in workplaces that can be fraught with problems.

Gallup frequently observes situations where scrum teams working on new projects or technology make recommendations and proposals, but these ideas are ultimately shot down because the business can't absorb the degree of cross-functional agreement that the projects require.

Clearly, the matrix structure itself doesn't make companies more functional, focused or adaptable. And matrix structures don't necessarily promote an agile culture, either. To get the most out of using a matrix structure, companies need cultures that can handle the magnitude of change a matrixed approach brings.

Expectations, Purpose and Red Tape

Driving agility in a matrixed organization requires moving beyond organizational charts and reporting relationships. Leaders need to view the matrix as both structure and infrastructure. They need to infuse a matrix mentality throughout internal systems, from collaboration platforms to review methods to agile workflow. To be matrixed and agile, leaders must each own their vital role.

Work environments should be:

  • relationship-focused
  • egalitarian
  • collaborative

Consistent messaging and alignment across all three of these components are essential for a high-performing, matrixed culture.

The delivery mechanism of a company's message is the manager. Leaders can set them up for success by paying close attention to expectations and purpose and by helping cut through red tape.

1. Get crystal clear on expectations.

Gallup research suggests that, though matrixed employees are more engaged than non-matrixed ones, they're less clear about expectations at work. To build clarity, leaders need to actively create a culture of dialogue between managers and employees.

When matrixed employees understand their role and the accompanying expectations well, they are positioned for outcome-driven collaboration and inclusive decision-making. Maintaining day-to-day, open lines of communication and providing actionable performance feedback are essential for role clarity and keeping managers and employees on the same page.

Gallup research suggests that, though matrixed employees are more engaged than non-matrixed ones, they're less clear about expectations at work.

Matrix structure managers and leaders should also provide frequent, actionable performance feedback for employees with whom they have a dotted relationship. Those workers should actively partner with their direct managers via ongoing performance development conversations rather than annual performance management conversations. Once-a-year course corrections tend to slow workers, projects and outcomes down.

2. Emphasize connection to purpose.

Leaders set the tone for any work culture and are responsible for aligning an organization's purpose, brand and culture. Managers can support this effort by connecting organizational values to employees' daily work.

When the connection to purpose is weak in a matrix structure, leaders struggle with a complicated web of stakeholders and an imbalance of power. Consequently, achieving alignment and consensus on critical initiatives becomes a challenge. Decision-making takes too much time and forward motion is difficult.

Connecting purpose with work requires communication. That dialogue reinforces a trusting, unified work environment that tends to erase boundaries. Matrixed organizations must feel open.

3. Cut through the red tape.

To address internal trust issues, leaders must proactively promote reciprocity, trust and cooperation. In a thriving matrix, employees take one another's opinions seriously and give mutual respect when decisions are made.

Gallup research finds that matrixed companies can struggle with that: 24% of highly matrixed employees report they trust their coworkers to get their work done in a timely manner vs. 29% of the non-matrixed. This despite -- or perhaps because -- they're more likely than non-matrixed employees to say they spend their days responding to coworkers' requests (45% vs. 23%, respectively) and attending internal meetings (33% vs. 2%).

Lack of trust is a signal of weak internal networks and limited employee collaboration -- a hallmark of a poorly-managed matrix structure. Being caught up in meetings and internal processes can also slow decision-making, blur lines of communication, stifle productivity and hinder organizational responsiveness and agility.

To optimize cross-functionality, leaders and managers need to ensure information flows freely and smoothly between different business groups, functions and departments. Without bogging employees down with meetings, managers should still encourage teams to brainstorm to develop solutions to mission-critical problems and opportunities. Teams should also be equipped to pool and leverage internal resources so that all functions benefit from enhanced collaboration and know that their opinions count.

The Agile Matrix

Clear expectations, attention to purpose and red tape reduction can help build agility in a matrix structure (or an "Agile Matrix"), but only if the culture supports these efforts. Many studies on agility have shown that an ineffective culture can be a strong impediment to realizing the benefits of organizational agility.

Many companies have come to the same conclusion. Gallup's recent study of European employees shows little difference in perceptions of agility based on the extent to which teams are matrixed. What truly matters is culture -- importantly one that is customer-focused.

Spotify -- a music streaming company -- offers a great example of a matrix structure done well. At Spotify, employees are organized into squads, guilds, chapters and tribes. According to Spotify, this arrangement of individuals, roles and interrelationships has helped the company be truly agile.

The fluidity in this approach allows Spotify to spin up a new squad to take advantage of an opportunity or to handle an issue without worrying about who reports to whom.

For matrix organizations trying to do what Spotify does, building a culture of collaboration is crucial. Leaders will play a key role here. In a thriving matrix structure, leaders break down traditional organizational barriers, replacing them with enhanced teamwork and trust.

But Spotify succeeds because it has a highly evolved and highly collaborative culture. It has the focus, effective project management and mature scrum teams to keep their matrix structure agile. Its leaders can take advantage of opportunities resulting from cross-functional interactions and entrust others with responsibilities and decision-making.

The fluidity in this approach allows Spotify to spin up a new squad to take advantage of an opportunity or to handle an issue without worrying about who reports to whom.

Many company cultures don't possess those attributes. And, as seen, developing scrum teams, encouraging dotted relationships, etc., alone isn't enough.

For a matrix structure to succeed in today's business environment, leaders must recognize that greater internal and external business complexity intensifies the need for flexibility and fluidity, which demands collaboration, clear expectations and a strong sense of purpose.

All of those qualities are a function of the type of strong organizational culture that keeps businesses nimble, fast and focused -- and their presence is a clear sign of matrix management mastery.

Gallup can help your organization learn more about successfully implementing agile matrixed structures:


Vibhas Ratanjee is Senior Practice Expert -- Organizational and Leadership Development at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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