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9 insights for leading in a matrix

February 20, 2014

By Mark Hannum

As I introduced in an earlier post, a matrix organizational structure is lean, flexible, and fast-moving. It’s made up of experts who are able to collaborate on complex problems, make important decisions, and are capable of reporting to more than one “boss.”

With all of this activity going on, working and leading in a matrix environment can feel a bit chaotic. However, to the trained eye, this chaos is actually quite patterned and orderly if you’re able to see the whole and not the parts. The chaos can seem worse of course, by employee changes, market shifts, technology advances, resource limitations, and regulatory changes—at ever increasing rates of speed.

Typical pyramidal, hierarchical organizational structures depend on control, but leaders in a matrix can’t and shouldn’t try to control the chaos. Successful leaders in a matrix need to guide as opposed to control and learn how to encourage, spread, and amplify healthy, creative patterns.

Here are 9 matrix “musts” for leaders:

  1. A leader in a matrix must see the organization as a complex organism, not as a machine.
  2. A leader in a matrix must have a strong vision that’s also general enough to be inclusive.
  3. A leader in a matrix must be able to manage resource costs and be able to over-resource or swarm a problem, simultaneously.
  4. A  leader in a matrix must provide information transparently to create information flow, diversity, and connectivity while also increasing accountability.
  5. A leader in a matrix must be able to balance tension and paradox in a way that will drive and motivate the organization.
  6. A leader in a matrix must generate lots of small actions and changes to create organizational momentum (and health). Lots of small experiments will create emergence. Lots of small experiments will also drift and die. It’s OK. Experiments that die a good death are learning opportunities, not failures.
  7. A leader in a matrix must use both the formal organization and the informal organization to lead and manage.
  8. A leader in a matrix must be able to link small teams together to create larger outcomes.
  9. A leader must be capable of creating both competition and collaboration within the organization.

The matrix can be a great place to work. It’s constantly changing and adapting to better fit its environment. But, it runs on a different set of processes and structures than a more traditional organization.

And for those of you who started reading this post thinking you were going to learn about how to maintain control in a matrix, you’re out of luck.

So, are you trying to survive in a matrix with a traditional, control-based mindset? Click here if it’s not working out so well. 

More about Mark

Mark Hannum has over twenty years of experience in organizational and leadership development, systems thinking, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions.

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