Managing across

01 June, 2015

Six ways to handle the complexity that comes with matrix structures

Over the last couple of years, we have reorganised our organisational structure to better capitalise on our growth potential, as a global company. We have created separate geographic clusters, to sustain the agile and entrepreneurial spirit of our business. At the same time, we have established global functions to leverage the benefits of scale and to enable cross pollination and sharing of best practices. We have also set up a number of cross-functional teams to drive different projects.

As a result of these changes, we now have a matrix way of working in several areas. Frankly, many of us are apprehensive about the perceived complexity and bureaucracy a typical matrix way of working could bring. Sometimes, matrix structures can lead to turf wars. Too many people could get involved in an issue and the number of meetings can increase, slowing decision making. Not to mention that some businesses resent that it could lead to more interference from head office!

So, we need to ask ourselves – is the matrix way of working just a necessary evil? Or can we actually make it a great way to learn and collaborate?

The reality is that as a global organisation, it is absolutely critical for us to get more effective at not just managing up and managing down – but also managing across. And if done right, it can lead to unparalleled professional development, and allow us to really tap into the benefits of scale and learn from each other.

In short, we can ensure that the sum of the whole is greater than the parts.

So, how do we manage our relationships with people over whom we may have no formal ‘authority’? How do we better drive collaboration in cross-functional teams? How do we get people to commit to and stick to timelines, when they may have differing priorities? And do all of this, while not getting to always decide on how they get rated or rewarded?

To become effective at managing across, we need to focus on six key aspects:

1. A shared sense of purpose with clear objectives and measures

Teams are formed with a defined organisational purpose in mind. But that alone cannot ensure that they work together successfully. Each team member needs to truly own this purpose and know what’s in it for them. Only then can all efforts be aligned towards a common cause.

Team goals need to broken down into individual goals for each team member. This is more so for cross-functional team projects, which people work on as part of their larger responsibilities, and where there is no formal reporting structure. Having these shared goals ensures that people have a strong reason to come together and collaborate. It is always a good idea to share individual goals within the team, so that each person knows the scope and commitment of the others. It should also be clear, how performance gets assessed and by who. The right incentive structure, designed to reward for collaboration and attaining shared goals, can be a big motivator.

2. Be empathetic

The crux of any team, is its people and the relationships that you forge with them. You must be able to understand each other’s perspectives and trust and respect each other. Spend time with people one-on-one. Talk to them about the challenges they face and their apprehensions, especially if it impacts your delivery overall as a team. Connect emotionally. Dialogue openly and honestly. To really make this relationship work, you need to cut through the layers and get to the people you are working with.

Daniel Goleman, in his article What Makes a Leader? talks about how being able to develop emotional intelligence will help you better understand your own (and others’) priorities, pressures, and work styles. People with strong self awareness are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest with themselves and with others. They recognise how their feelings affect them, other people, and their job performance. This is critical when you are managing across.

3. Earn your seat at the table

Identify your strengths and the expertise that you will bring to the table. Work on them. There is no substitute for expertise. If you can prove your worth, people will respect you for it. Prepare for discussions, research your assignments, do your best to ensure that you stay at the top of your game. Understand how your skills could benefit the team that you are working with. Look for opportunities to demonstrate them. Maybe even volunteer to help your team members on projects where you can add value. And be open to learning. Don’t assume that you know it all.

4. Sustain agility

Matrix structures come with enough inherent complexities. So, don’t make things unnecessarily bureaucratic and create too many layers of approval. Focus on things that truly add value. And insist that your team members do the same. Don’t become a pencil pusher, or opine just for the purpose of being heard or seen.

5. Communicate openly, frequently and honestly

You must have clear ground rules as a team. You aren’t navigating a traditional reporting relationship, so you need to co-create ways of working that everyone agrees on. Communicate as openly and frequently as you can. Agree on how you will share information, who needs to be part of which discussions, what your escalation matrix is and so on. Figure out how to balance getting the right people on board for discussions, without making it too complicated and compromising on agility. Laying this out at the start is very important, because it becomes the base for all your interactions going ahead.

6. Have a clear process for conflict management

There are bound to be conflicts. But don’t make them about the person. Focus on the issue and the facts. Don’t hide behind email; try to resolve issues in person. Don’t go behind people’s backs. Call out issues if you see them. Don’t pull rank. It only complicates things further and stifles resolution.

In order to become more effective at managing across, we need to move on from the debate of solid lines and dotted lines. Irrespective of the structure, managing across really boils down to our frame of mind. How committed are we to becoming more global in our thinking, while maintaining our empowered, entrepreneurial execution? Like with any other way of working, this too will have its challenges. But it is up to us to harness the good parts and make them successful in our company. If we can manage to unlock this potential and effectively manage across, it will be a powerful competitive advantage for us.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions on what we could do to enable our teams on this. If you have any learnings from personal experience that you would like to share, I would welcome them.


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