How to Make It in a Criss-Cross World: Surviving and Thriving in a Matrix Environment

She’s got three supervisors, and he has six. She works on five projects, and he has four. Although their paths rarely cross, they have something in common – they’re both part of a matrix organization.

Unlike a traditional workplace where employees have one boss and a chain of supervision, matrix organizations mix and match projects and supervisors. Like anything, a matrix framework presents opportunities and challenges. The secret to success in this criss-cross world is finding the opportunities and minimizing the challenges at every turn.

What kinds of workers and workplaces work well for a matrix structure?
Matrix structures work best when employees are driven to succeed, and the organization is clear about priorities and goals. Absent of those two ingredients, however, the matrix will probably disappoint.

What benefits do top-rate matrix organizations typically realize?
Efficient use of resources: Great matrix organization bring together the right people at the right time for the right project. Matrix organizations also tend to be less siloed and have fewer duplicate functions.
Better collaboration: Because they move from team to team, people working in matrix organizations usually know more people and have broader perspectives. They see the workplace from many viewpoints and can have more empathy for their coworkers because of their wider perspective.
Less boredom and faster skill building: People who work in a matrix workplace often encounter more opportunities to have new experiences and learn skills. Subsequently, they experience less boredom and are slower to outgrow positions.

What challenges can arise?
Multiple priorities with no clear winner: When an employee works in a traditional structure, usually his or her manager will organize projects or tasks in some sort of priority if needed. In a matrix team, however, if managers don’t agree or are unaware of conflicts, the matrix worker can quickly become a pawn in a power game.
Less role clarity: When an employee reports to multiple managers, it can be difficult to know who does what and when. For example, if the employee needs training, which manager makes that happen? Who writes the review? Who contributes to the review? Who gives feedback?
Greater opportunities for unproductive people to stay unproductive: If an employee reports to several teams and isn’t engaged on any project, that employee can more easily hide than one reporting to a single supervisor.
A better chance for project overload: When matrix managers aren’t fully aware of an employee’s tasks and responsibilities, it’s easy to inadvertently ask for too much.

As a leader, what can you do to ensure success?
Be sure you have the right people: If you have a lot of people who do the minimum or people who lack drive, work on engaging them or replace them before you jump into the matrix. Matrix teams don’t function well when the majority of members lack the fire to succeed.
Be clear about goals: As a leader, you can greatly reduce prioritization problems if you are clear about what matters, what should take priority and so forth. If you and other leaders don’t agree, come together before adopting a matrix structure. And once you’ve taken the plunge, be sure to regularly discuss and communicate what’s most important.
Communicate who does what: If all managers will have input in an employee’s review, make that known. If one manager handles vacation approvals, explain that too. Ideally, think through process challenges before they arise.
Pay attention to what’s on everyone’s plate, and spread the work and opportunities around: Matrix organization often reward or punish top performers. They also provide opportunities for people to hide. Take the time to make sure that someone is looking at everyone’s workload.

As a worker in the matrix, how can you help yourself?
Self-advocate: Matrix workers usually know their work better than any of their managers. Therefore, it’s important to speak up if you have multiple bosses. Don’t expect anyone to have the full picture without a little help from you. If you need help prioritizing, ask for it. If need more opportunity, make that known.
Take the time to invest in relationships: In many matrix environments, opportunities come to those who have strong relationships. Take the time to get to know as many people as possible, and always ask yourself how you can add value. People typically want to work with those they know and like. So build bridges, produce great work, and do what you can to be likeable.
Get comfortable with conflict: Multiple projects combined with multiple bosses can equal conflict. The key to overcoming the challenge is getting comfortable with disagreement and focusing on the issues that need resolving. Note, the better your relationships, the easier this will be.
Stay adaptable: Today, project x is the top priority, but tomorrow the focus may be project y. To thrive in a matrix environment, work on being flexible and willing to shift as needed.
Matrix organizations offer unique opportunities for employees to work collaboratively with people from different departments and hierarchies, develop new skills, and tackle complex challenges. With careful planning, strong management, clear direction, and a bought-in staff, the rewards almost always outweigh the risks.

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