Lost In the Matrix? A survival kit

“I have one hierarchical boss, two functional ones whom I hardly know, and I’m part of three or four Strategic Global Initiative teams, two of them operating remotely, and I sometimes wonder if in a near future I’ll still be able to find my way back to my own bedroom… Not to think about how my own performance can be tracked down by my own boss…”

In a 2009 HBR interview, J. Richard Hackman, Harvard professor and recognized researcher on team effectiveness, makes an interesting statement: “It’s managing the links between members that gets teams into trouble. My rule of thumb is no double digits”. Hum… we’re far from the complexities of a global matrix. And if we consider the classical success factors of teams, such as clear boundaries (who’s in, who’s not); a clear and compelling set of directions; a facilitating environment and structure; a supportive organization (like HR performance tracking and evaluation); stability (in order to build on experience), almost all of these factors take a blow in a global matrix organization structure. But there’s no point questioning these organizations. They are the logical response to challenge of how to better manage resources at group / global level and at the same time offer the best local or function-specific answers.

So the question is, how can you make your way in this complexity and not simply get burned by it? Here is some advice based on our experience and dialogue with managers and leaders who have not only survived in the matrix, but who have learned how to take the best from it and succeed.

Be a diplomat: by definition, the matrix responds to various sets of interests some of which are potentially ambiguous or even conflicting. Being at the cross section is risky, but it’s also full of opportunities. So get the coaching or training you need to develop problem solving, negotiation and mediation skills.

Be a geek: Matrix organizations couldn’t exist without Information Technology. Companies are now operating within a wired global grid. Develop your ability to use all the up-to-date communications and computerized solutions so that you stay “connected”. New computerized-brain generations will soon dominate the workplace. Don’t get left behind.

Make friends: When the machine gets mad, we still can rely on people! Seek out all occasions to meet “real people” in “real life” and make “real friends”. One day a simple phone call to someone you met might give you the answer to an organizational nightmare. “Virtual friends” might not be as supportive and involved.

Make choices: Time is a scarce resource and getting involved in too many lines within the matrix will surely overwhelm you and ultimately burn you out. Before stepping into another “global project”, make sure it’s worth stepping into. Assess your potential contribution and make sure that it will be recognized.

Make yourself visible: Matrix organizations are, after all, open fields to play in. There are many options out there. You are no longer stuck in a restricted environment. You are exposed to many other places and people within the global organization. Take advantage of that.

Keep track of your performance: As you get involved in different projects or reporting lines, your own performance depends on a larger group of stakeholders. Still, your annual appraisal will be done by one person, your direct boss. And he/she might not be aware of all the contributions you have made and the performance evaluation scheme might not take this level of complexity into account. So keep track of your contributions and share these with your direct boss at appraisal time.

Know the global map: A global matrix is constantly changing. One of the most important rules for surviving in the wilderness is to “know your turf”. The same holds true for a global matrix. Stay connected; know who’s who and who’s going where. Keep up on the organizational changes that might have an impact on your function, line of business, region or project teams.

In over twenty years of working with our clients, we have seen almost all of them move into a matrix organization. I haven’t heard all that many people say “our matrix works!” But some of them do work better than others and some people succeed better than others too. Improvements can be made if people are committed to making it work. Dealing with global complexity is difficult and frustrating but it’s also an opportunity to live in a more open world and have a much richer set of opportunities to seize.

It’s worth learning how to get the best out of it!




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4 Responses to “Lost In the Matrix? A survival kit”


  1. By voyatzis Antony
    on January 31, 2012

    really smart suggestions
    i came back to your points after one year of experience
    I appreciate the value ..now.

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