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Five Tips to Navigate your Way Successfully through Matrix Organizations

Five Tips to Navigate your Way Successfully through Matrix Organizations

If you are an employee in a large organization, a freelancer or a consultant, you have probably worked in the matrix structure without being fully aware about it. A matrix structure is usually a combination of a vertical (product/service P&L Unit) and a horizontal function (Finance, Marketing, HR, IT, etc) and is implemented to facilitate balanced decision-making and flexibility.  In other words – welcome to working in complexity where you may have all the responsibility but without the necessary authority.

More and more companies are gravitating towards matrix organizations to deal with the increasingly dynamic and chaotic work environments. Gartner highlighted these changes in their predictions for the world of work in this decade:

“Work will become less routine, characterized by increased volatility, hyper connectedness, ‘swarming‘ and more,” said Tom Austin, vice president and Gartner fellow. By 2015, 40 percent or more of an organization’s work will be ‘non-routine’, up from 25 percent in 2010. “People will swarm more often and work solo less. They’ll work with others with whom they have few links, and teams will include people outside the control of the organization,” he added. “In addition, simulation, visualisation and unification technologies, working across yottabytes of data per second, will demand an emphasis on new perceptual skills.”

Sounds familiar? If you are in the business management/operations role like me, this style of working is the norm and not the exception and it needs some special skills and abilities to successfully navigate your way through the organization. Based on what has worked for me and what hasn’t, I have put together my five working tips that help in adapting and being effective (and happy) in working in roles that give you responsibility without immediately clear authority:

Working Tip #1 – Know what you need to achieve:

This is rule number one – Knowing what you need to achieve before you embark on an initiative involving different teams helps you to keep your eyes on your goal and not get blind-sided by the priorities of the other teams. Of course the ultimate goal would be the one that the organisation has set and has necessitated the working in the matrix structure and you need to be aligned to that  but you also are solely responsible for your part of the whole and that is why in every meeting or interaction, it is necessary for you to remember that. This helps you to ensure that the working plan is moving towards that goal at all times and give your inputs with that clarity when it is time for group decision-making (helps combat “groupitis” or death by committee scenarios).

Working Tip #2 – Let go of the need to be liked:

The desire to be liked, to be popular is a very strong human driver and this is quite normal. But be careful that this does not become a “need” that drives the way you operate at work. It leads to making compromises that you are not comfortable with because they are not aligned to your internal ethical compass. Don’t go with the herd mentality because you are afraid that speaking up or standing up for something will make you unpopular. Not everyone everywhere will like you and that’s okay – you are not at work to win a popularity contest. Just treat everyone with respect (the way you would want to be treated by others) and focus on the work. You will get more done and be happier too.

Working Tip #3 – Sharpen your conflict-management skills:  

You have to be comfortable with conflict as it is a given in situations where people from different functions or roles need to work together. Understanding conflict management techniques is important to reach a resolution quickly (and with the least amount of blood-bath). To quote of one of my favourite leadership bloggers, Mike Myatt, from his post on workplace conflicts

“Don’t fear conflict; embrace it – it’s your job. While you can try and avoid conflict (bad idea), you cannot escape conflict. The fact of the matter is conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. It will find you whether you look for it (good idea – more later) or not. The ability to recognize conflict, understand the nature of conflict, and to be able to bring swift and just resolution to conflict will serve you well as a leader – the inability to do so may well be your downfall.”

And also, you need to be wise enough to pick your battles with care.

Working Tip #4 – Escalation is not the best solution:

Don’t be trigger happy with hitting the escalation button. This should be your last option when working in a matrix organization and there are many reasons for this – the main one being that trust and teamwork is the foundation for a successful matrix organization. And a blame-game attitude poisons the foundation pretty fast. (Pardon me for all the “killing” analogies – it is a side-effect of working in the corporate world for so long :)).

Moreover an escalation may not work as the final decision-making authority would not be your immediate superior – in a matrix org, it is usually the CEO or a level lower than her and do you really want to go whining all the way there when you have other options to make things work ? Also by escalating, you let go of all the influence that you have managed to build so far – and influence trumps authority to get things done in complex organizations.

Working Tip #5 – Communication is key:

I have saved this for the last as it is a common thread for all the earlier tips. For you to be successful in a matrix organization – you have to get personal. You have to take the time to know every person that you are working with directly or indirectly – their strengths and weakness, their goals and needs. Strive to understand before being understood. And for that you have to communicate. Be open and transparent about yourself. Listen. Interact. Absorb. Empathize. Thank often. Criticize less. Give credit often. Build relationships. Pick up the phone when emails seem to be getting shorter and cc lists getting longer. Meet up/Video when you think phone conversations and calls seems to be getting you nowhere. Communication helps break down the vertical and horizontal silos, improves relationships and creates an effective “groupthink” environment that further promotes teamwork and trust.

I believe that these are skills that can be developed and honed and really help in leading and working in a matrix operating environment. And ALWAYS in your work, as Seth Godin says – Be open, generous and connected:

Open to new ideas, leaning forward, exploring the edges, impatient with the status quo… In a hurry to make something worth making.

Generous when given the opportunity (or restless to find the opportunity when not). Focused on giving people dignity, respect and the chance to speak up. Aware that the single most effective way to move forward is to help others move forward as well.

and connected. Part of the community, not apart from it. Hooked into the realities and dreams of the tribe. Able and interested in not only cheering people on, but shining a light on how they can accomplish their goals.

What do you think?  Have you come across any challenges while working in matrix organizations ? What makes you lose your cool and what helps you get your “balance” back? Have these tips worked for you ? I would love to hear and learn from you.

Pic Courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevecorey/7281531296/