Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


Managing The Matrix

Task: Assemble the best team.

Task: Assemble the best team.

One of my largest clients is re-engineering its organization to focus on functions rather than geographies. It’s a classic move from top-down management to matrix management. I think it’s very much the right thing to do but it’s making some of the managers nervous. How does one shift from managing a team to managing a matrix?

I went through a similar transition at Lawson, the last major software company that I worked for. We transitioned from geographies – Sweden, Western USA, Australia/New Zealand – to global teams that focused on vertical markets like healthcare, food and beverage, and fashion. We focused on industries rather than geographies and became expert advisors to our customers.

And what did I learn about managing in a matrix? Here are the key ideas that stood out for me.

Connectors succeed – in a geographic organization, a manager gets to know her team and learns how to accentuate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Team members are often physically close to each other. There’s no need to connect them; they’re already connected. In a matrix, the ability to connect people is the most important single skill. People who are natural connectors are often the best matrix managers.

Diplomacy counts – diplomacy is a useful skill for any manager. It’s especially important in a matrix. In a top-down organization, a manager could simply give orders without much tact or diplomacy. Not so in a matrix. A matrix manager is forever building teams – one team to address Issue X, and another to address Issue Y. A matrix manager is always recruiting and needs a positive attitude, good diplomatic skills, and a good understanding of what motivates people.

A good manager can build all-star teams – let’s say I wanted to sell Lawson software to the Swedish fashion house, Filippa K. With the right diplomatic and connecting skills, I could assemble an all-star team to sell the account. My team might include a design expert from New Zealand, a cut-and-sew expert from New York, and a retail expert from Stockholm. I pull them together and focus them intently on the task of selling to Filippa K. Once they sell the account, the team dissolves and the team members reassemble — perhaps with other teammates – to focus on a different project. The good news is that a matrix manager gets to work with all-stars all the time. The not-so-bad news is that a successful matrix manager needs to continually assemble and re-assemble teams in ever-changing patterns.

Talent spotting becomes more important– in a geographic organization, employees do multiple things in a designated area. They become jacks-of-all-trades. In a matrix organization, employees are much more likely to specialize in a given function. They can master the skill. The successful matrix manager knows how to spot the most talented employees and recruit them to her (temporary) team.

Flexibility and adaptability count – flexibility is the strongest point of matrix organization. Managers can quickly assemble and re-assemble teams based on changing needs. This only works if managers are equally flexible. Managers must be fluid; they can’t stay attached to a permanent structure. There is no permanent structure.

Managers must work effectively with each other – in a matrix, an employee often has more than one manager on a given project. For instance, that retail expert from Stockholm would report to me temporarily while working on the Filippa K account. At the same time, she would also report to the overall head of the retail team, who might be located in Melbourne. It can get confusing and roles need to be clearly defined. At the same time, managers need to work effectively with their peers cross the matrix. If I have a beef with the manager in Melbourne, things will go downhill quickly. Again, diplomacy and good communication are key ingredients for success.

The matrix changes the culture – in geographic organizations, teams may easily fall into competition with each other. I would have no incentive to lend my retail expert to another geography. That would only crimp my chances of making my number. A matrix, on the other hand, emphasizes cooperation. If a manager doesn’t make her all-stars available, she doesn’t get access to other all-stars. Sharing becomes more important than competing.

Ultimately, good managers have nothing to be afraid of in a matrix organization. Even in traditional top-down organizations, good managers are likely to be effective communicators and motivators with good diplomatic skills. Those are the same skills that are required to succeed in a matrix.

Corporate Culture: Counting The Uncountable

Stand by me.

You can’t measure love.

I was in a meeting not long ago with a client whose organization is undergoing a significant transformation. We were discussing what needed to change and how we might promote the appropriate change efforts. A senior executive spoke up to say, “Well, you get what you measure.” Nobody challenged the assumption behind the thought and we began to focus on how to measure change in the organization.

I had, of course, heard similar statements many times before. Business schools emphasize measurement as a key ingredient of management. As a leader, you point the way, establish some key measurements, and then harvest the results. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

But think about the things that we don’t bother to measure – or that we don’t know how to measure. These include love, respect, hope, initiative, creativity, open-mindedness, ability to resolve conflicts, receptiveness to new ideas, focus, drive, and resilience. Do we really not care about these things?

We tell managers that the most important thing they can do is build a positive, engaging organizational culture. (See here and here). We also tell them they can only get what they measure. Yet many of the components of culture are simply not measureable. I have yet to hear a manager say, “In the third quarter, we increased corporate resilience by 3.2% compared with the same quarter in the previous year.”

So, how do we help managers build a positive culture even when they can’t measure it? Here are some thoughts:

  • The answer is not a number on a piece of paper. It’s OK to look at numbers but we need to remember that a number is an abstraction of a measurement that is an abstraction of reality. Looking only at numbers is like driving your car by looking only at the speedometer.
  • Trust is an unrecognized but important ingredient. We focus on measurement partially because we don’t trust our eyes, and ears, and subordinates. A measurement is supposed to give us an “objective” view of the organization. But a measurement is only as objective as the person taking the measurement – which is to say, not very. If we can create a culture built on trust, we can learn more about our organization than a measurement will ever tell us. (In this regard, it’s useful to review Edwards Deming’s 14 points of management and his red bead experiment).
  • Learning to observe is more important than learning to measure. We forget that measurement is just one form of observation. Management by walking around still works. Taking groups of employees out to dinner will teach you more than a spreadsheet will. Practice being naïve – ask questions that a rookie would ask. You may think you don’t need to ask certain questions because you already know the answer. But you’re probably wrong.
  • A good conversation is more important than a staff meeting. Staff meetings can be useful but they’re also very structured. You get the information that the structure permits. A good conversation is much more open-ended. You can wander about until you touch on the really important issues.
  • Questions are more important than answers. A number from a measurement purports to give us an answer. But it only answers the question you asked – and the answer may not be accurate. Learn how to ask probing questions that get rich and unexpected answers. Tip: a good course on critical thinking will help.

I think we obsess about measurement because we have a bad case of physics envy. We want our organization to behave like a physics experiment. If we apply Force X, we get Result Y. It doesn’t work that way and never will. Time to get over the measurement mania.

Appreciative Inquiry

When I encountered a problem as a manager, my natural inclination was to delve into it with sharply defined questions like:

  • What went wrong?
  • How did we get here?
  • How did this happen?
  • Who was responsible?
  • What was the root cause?

hand frameThe first thing you’ll notice about these questions is that they’re all in the past tense. As we know from studying rhetoric, arguments in the past tense are about laying blame, not about finding solutions. The very way that I phrase my questions lets people know that I’m seeking someone to blame. What’s the natural reaction? People become defensive and bury the evidence.

The second thing you’ll notice is that all my questions are negative. The questions presuppose that nothing good happened. I don’t ask about what went right. I’m just not thinking about it. And neither is anyone else who hears my questions.

In many situations, however, a lot of things do go right. In fact, I would guess that in most organizations most things go right most of the time. Failures are caused by a few things going wrong. It’s rarely the case that everything goes wrong. Focusing on what’s wrong narrows our vision to a small slice of the activity. We don’t see the big picture. It’s self-defeating.

So, I’ve been looking for a systematic way to focus on the positive even when negative things happen. I think I may have found a solution in something called appreciative inquiry or AI.

According to Wikipedia, appreciative inquiry “is based on the assumption that the questions we ask will tend to focus our attention in a particular direction.” Instead of focusing on deficiencies, AI “starts with the belief that every organization, and every person in that organization, has positive aspects that can be built upon.” AI argues that, when people “in an organization are motivated to understand and value the most favorable features of its culture, [the organization] can make rapid improvements”.

The AI model includes four major steps:

  • Discover – identify processes and cultural features that work well;
  • Dream – envision processes that would work well in the future;
  • Design – develop process that would work well in the culture;
  • Deliver – execute the proposed designs.

The ultimate goal is to “build organizations around what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn’t”.

Paul Nutt compares appreciative inquiry to solving a mystery. To get to the bottom of a mystery, we need to know about everything that went on, not just those things that went wrong. Nutt writes that, “A mystery calls for appreciative inquiry, in which skillful questioning is used to get to the bottom of things.”

I’m still learning about appreciative inquiry (and about most everything else) and I’m sure that I’ll write more about it in the future. In the meantime, if you have examples of appreciative inquiry used in an organization, please let me know.

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