Maze runner: Negotiating and thriving in the matrix organization

Yes it’s ambiguous, diffracted and confusing, but the matrix structure also provides great opportunities for adaptable and agile leaders

Sanjay Handu

[Photograph: The maze of Longleat House by Rurik]

My first rather unsettling introduction to the now widely prevalent matrix structure in organizations was in the late 1990s. I worked for a large global engineering firm then and headed its supply chain function in India. At that point in time the firm was structured around geographical entities. These were largely self-contained country kingdoms in themselves. There were some regional/global staff functions that worked across the country entities but their influence was limited at best.

Triggered by an acquisition, this structure changed overnight into a global strategic business unit-based (SBU-based) structure. Each SBU was now focused on a specific industry segment across the globe. It had total responsibility for all resources and results related to that industry segment. This also meant that the existing country entity structure and leadership got diluted to a more legal/administrative role. I went from heading a large trans-India supply chain team to being a one-man staff leader while my erstwhile team was divided across several SBUs—a change that was sudden in its deployment and decidedly unsettling at a personal level. From a command-and-control model it had morphed to a collaborate-coax-convince one. From hierarchy-driven authority to influencing and charm. From having one undisputed omnipotent reporting manager to multiple mangers and a profusion of peers. The rules of the game had just changed.

When I look back now, a decade-and-a-half after I first experienced the matrix organization, I realise that a number of professional leaders still struggle with this concept. They are perfectly capable in their own right, but are often frustrated by the workings of the matrix—seemingly ambiguous, slow and diffracted; exhibiting diluted leadership and direction that sometimes leads to wasted efforts, misguided focus, unsung performances, territorial battles and much angst.

And yet, a matrix structure is inevitable as organizations grow larger in scale and spread (in terms of technology, product and geography) and begin to slow down in their ability to sense and respond to stimuli from markets. The matrix allows for several smaller, nimbler organizations (SBUs) that are focused around industry or geography. Another set of staff units (focused on function or industry mostly) now work as ‘glue’ to hold them together by providing some unified rules and methodologies.

This crosshatched network of solid, dotted and dashed reporting lines means that leaders across the SBUs and the staff units have more than one manager, responsibility and deliverable. It can appear to be a daunting maze of multiple directives and priorities.

Which begs the question: what frameworks of thinking, communicating and operating could help leaders cope, survive and thrive in this matrix structure?

Focus on the light at the end, not the tunnel

It’s all too easy to focus on the inherent frustrations, challenges and delays of dealing with a matrix structure. A moment’s pause and relook would throw up its implicit benefits.

Early on in my career I had the opportunity to sit through a training programme where the speaker spoke about the future organization—complex, competitive, fast moving and ever changing. He emphasized that aspiring leaders having just one main skill set would no longer meet the needs of the future organization. He urged us to build expertise in more than one main skill set and knowledge of a couple of others. At a broader level his suggestion was to gain wider exposure than just being limited to one function, geography and unit. His advice rings true today more so than ever.

The matrix organization allows great scope for this approach with its multiple reporting lines where, by mandate, leaders have access to more than one area of the organization. Keep a curious mind and participate wholeheartedly in each of these avenues and you will gain a greater understanding of the organization’s working and plumbing. It also lets you to expand your network and build a wider base of supporters and well wishers. Beyond this, you can gain early sight on lateral job opportunities within the organization and position yourself accordingly.

So, while the matrix organization does raise several operating challenges, it also opens up new opportunities for the ambitious, adaptable and agile leader who is willing to invest more of herself to explore and learn the new avenues. Focusing on these opportunities will change frustration into excitement and participation. It will also pave the way for career progression, either lateral or linear.

Expect ambiguity and delay, but exploit the flexibility

New entrants into the matrix organization can quickly get frustrated by what appear to be swathes of grey ambiguity in the policy directive and objectives. At a higher level of definition, the authority and responsibility of units seem to overlap, which often leads to confusion about who takes the call on what. While it may seem counterproductive, the reality is that this is often by design. The intent is to maintain some healthy tension at an operating level and thereby force discussion and debate between units and teams. Interestingly, it’s only leaders at a certain level of seniority, typically occupying strategic/tactical positions, who deal with these challenges. For the larger majority of operational posts the reporting structures are mostly linear.

Here’s how the push and pull might work out: A large organization bidding for its global logistics needs could finalise on a vendor that will give it an overall global benefit. Whereas at an elemental level certain country units could be better off working with a local vendor. The result is discussion and negotiation between the global and country teams to arrive at an optimal solution that finds balance between the macro and micro needs.

Through a consultative process of meetings and discussions, the teams iteratively arrive at a solution that addresses the largest set of concerns. This is a deeply considered compromise between opposing priorities. It is also a trade-off between time to decision and quality of decision. Though this process takes longer than the decision making in a centralized command-and-control organization, it scores high on having covered a wider set of eventualities and priorities as well as ensuring subsequent ease of deployment since most stakeholders have been a part of the discussions.

Focus on end objectives, not functions and units

As organizations face increasingly complex business challenges there is a constant need to find new, innovative solutions. These solutions need the combined inputs and efforts from more than one function, unit or geography to identify and deploy breakthrough solutions. A matrix structure is eminently suited for such a cross-functional task force since more than one stakeholder has an interest in resolving that issue and delivering the objective.

When I wanted to design and deploy a sourcing application in a large global organization that would allow seamless and transparent management of work from developed markets to suppliers in the emerging markets, I needed to first form a task force of members from procurement offices, IT systems, “buyers” from various SBUs and legal personnel from across the globe. The project took a few years to complete and went on to yield great benefits. No one unit could have delivered it on its own, but a set of units sharing bits of the end objective could and did.

Matrix organizations by design allow a better atmosphere for collaboration and cooperation as leaders are simultaneously on more than one “team” and share bits of objectives. They gain a more holistic view of what’s good for the organization instead of being locked in traditional silos. Traditional loyalties naturally get widened to more than one singular team or unit.

Manage your stakeholders

In the past it meant managing one omnipotent reporting manager. Her word and assessment of a reportee’s performance and behaviour decided his future in the organization. In the matrix organization the challenge is compounded by now having to manage more than one manager. At one stage of my career I reported to three managers simultaneously—local, regional and functional—which made for interesting times and hard learnings.

It’s critical to gain clarity on specific expectations from each manager early on, including metrics, reporting frequencies, telephonic updates, etc. Estimate and assess the time requirements as well as clashing priorities and highlight them at the earliest. Even arrange a three way conversation with the relevant managers to resolve resource and priority clashes. Often it is safer to over focus on the direct/primary manager, though at the time of assessment the indirect/secondary managers would also have a key voice.

Avoid political alignments to any one manager and definitely avoid speaking ill about one to the other. Bear in mind that they are peers and could share these conversations informally at some stage. Also, in the constantly changing structure of organizations, direct and indirect reporting lines can change overnight. It’s therefore politically wise to maintain cordial professional lines of communication with the “party in power” as well as the “opposition party”.

An increasing number of organizations are phasing out the once revered bell curve performance assessment system, but what will continue for a long time is the panel-based assessment of leaders’ performance. While performance metrics and fulfilment of objectives are key to success, the right professional attitude can add to the positive vote leaders garner from their primary, secondary, tertiary managers during a rack and stack session. The multiple reporting system in a matrix structure allows for a natural hedging opportunity where less than satisfactory performance in one area can be balanced out by an over performance in another area. This is also true for behavioural assessments.

The matrix organization appears to be the favoured operating model at this moment in time (or till the next new structure comes into vogue) thanks to its ability to allow simultaneous focus on multiple discrete objectives and also accelerated speed of decision and response to markets. It comes with its challenges but leaders would do well to also recognize the new opportunities that this structure brings with it: wider exposure, reach and networking. By leveraging their skills across multiple avenues, gaining broader visibility and support base based on consistent performance and a collaborative attitude, they can be successful maze runners who pave the way for their lateral and linear growth in the organization. 

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About the author

Sanjay Handu
Sanjay Handu

Corporate Consultant

Sanjay Handu has three decades of experience in diverse sectors like automotive, hardware, defence and heavy engineering. He has worked with large organizations like BOSCH, DEC, Larsen & Toubro and TE Connectivity. His most recent role was with TE Connectivity where he led the Aerospace, Defence and Marine business unit and prior to that was the global head of Strategic Sourcing across several emerging economies. He writes and speaks on business-related topics and is a member of industrial think tanks and educational advisory boards. He now focuses on supporting organizations with their strategy, supply chain and driving business transformation. He is passionate about travel, the outdoors, jazz music and anything with two wheels.

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