Making the most of your matrix

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You can’t get there from here. Either you’re in a vertical or a horizontal. Some are in a diagonal. At one company I recently worked with, the matrix is three-dimensional. There are hard-line relationships and dotted-line relationships.

And, most would admit, there are gaps — everywhere.

So, like the popular movie series after the same name, if you’re not stuck in the matrix, you’re stuck between — between one dimension and another or, worse yet, you’re stuck in a gap. And with it is stuck an estimated 50 percent of our business productivity.

I never have understood why we always tried to solve our organizational challenges by creating, re-creating, or inventing new structures.

Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed companies centralizing for efficiency, only to decentralize for innovation, and then to centralize again. It seems to go in five-year cycles; we just can’t seem to get it right, structurally.

With globalization, and increased complexity in our businesses, we have now gone to the matrix, I suspect, in the hope that it will solve our functional, product, process or geographic problems. It doesn’t. In fact, sometimes it means going from the frying pan into the fire.

One senior business leader recently admitted that she spent over 50 percent of her time managing the conflicts that existed throughout her matrixed relationships.

The litany of reasons for these conflicts was long: a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities, unclear work processes, a lack of authority to get the job done, or different rules of engagement for how people work together.

Add to this brew the fact that many operate in different countries and cultures with different expectations and customs, and different time zones.

We seem to have straight-line thinking that if we create this matrixed structure, people will automatically know what to do, and will do so efficiently and expertly. They don’t. No wonder we end up having train wrecks and sub-optimize our effectiveness — slow decision-making, distrust, turf wars, hoarded information, resistance and so on.

Matrixed organizations are not likely to go away any time soon, so we need a way to fill the gaps and increase our effectiveness.

Creating collaborative work relationships, grounded in the core principles of ownership and alignment, is the way to fill the gaps with glue — with the essence of what makes any organization work: high-trust, high-performance work relationships.

The glue involves creating a high level of consensus on how people are going to work together, i.e., trust.

So, whether you are in a horizontal, vertical or diagonal, whether you are in Europe, Latin America, Asia, or the U.S., and whether you are senior, middle, or front-line in the organization, if you have shared ownership of how you will work together, you begin to act as one organization — not a conglomerate of independent fiefdoms.

In a collaborative workplace, trust is the glue that holds you together. Easier said than done, but the matrix is expensive. It only makes good business sense to put the money to work for the business and your customers.

Get unstuck from the matrix. Begin your collaborative journey. It’s a conscious choice. What do you have to lose?

Marshall is a senior partner for organizational leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. He is the author of “Building Trust at Speed of Change.” He can be reached at or 919-265-9616.