The Matrix

The Matrix | Between the Lines, Medtronic Diabetes

No, I’m not referring to the cool movie trilogy starring Keanu Reeves. I’m talking about an organizational model.

When we hear “matrix,” the word used to describe an organization, it doesn’t usually evoke positive feelings. Instead, it typically causes anxiety.

What seems to concern most people is the dual reporting nature of the matrix.

Employees often ask: Who do I report to? What if my two “bosses” don’t agree? Does this mean I need to do double work and have double reviews?

People leaders have different questions: What am I responsible for? Are my team members “solid line”? Do I own the Profit & Loss statement?

I understand these concerns. Moving from a single chain of command to a dual chain of command is more complex. A matrix is harder.

So, why would an organization need a matrix structure at all?

To answer that question, let me give you an example from an employee’s perspective. Let’s take a Human Resources (HR) manager for Company A. We’ll call him Ben. Is Ben an employee of Company A organization, or is he an employee of Company A Corporate HR function?

He’s both. Ben’s role is to provide HR leadership to the business, but he can’t do this in a vacuum. The HR leadership Ben provides to Company A aligns with Company A’s Corporate HR policies and systems to ensure consistent practices across the global Company A’s organization.

Now think about it from a career standpoint. If Ben wants to continue growing within HR, he benefits from a strong link to the Corporate HR function, which can help him further develop his HR skills to achieve his aspirations. If Ben would like to grow within the Company A, but not necessarily within HR, the business can give him the opportunity to explore new areas and skills better aligned with his career goals.

Here’s another example from a leader’s perspective. Let’s take a president of a business unit, “Deb,” and a VP of the European region, “Adam.” So, who owns the business unit results in Europe?

They both do. Part of Deb’s goals and objectives are to grow her business in Europe, so she needs to think about how to align resources, what investments to make, what product mix to sell, etc. But Deb’s role is global, so she can’t spend all of her time thinking about Europe. She also needs to think about other regions, product development, marketing, etc. That’s where Adam’s role comes into play. Adam provides local leadership in Europe to help Deb execute the business unit strategy in the region. He provides senior leadership to local teams, helping run the business, break down barriers, and represent Company A to key regional stakeholders. Deb and Adam work together to make sure this joint responsibility doesn’t add complexity and additional work for their teams. In turn, they expect their teams to speak up and raise concerns if there is a bottleneck or other issue. In short, the business unit develops the regional strategy and manages global trade-offs to enable this strategy, and the region helps execute it.

These examples show that Company A can’t operate at their best within just a single part of the matrix. They need functions and operations, business units and regions. Each part adds value and strengthens the organization by making them more flexible and adaptable to change. And while the matrix might be more complex, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts — creating more value together than individually. The key to success is coordination, collaboration, communication and trust.

Let’s use another analogy to which those of us with children can relate. If you walked into my house, what you’d see on the surface is a home with me, my wife, and our three kids. But if you looked closer, you’d see that we actually operate in a matrix.

Our kids don’t “report” to Mom or Dad, they report to Mom and Dad. And you know what? Mom and Dad don’t always agree. Sometimes the kids will try to ask Mom for a different answer if they don’t like the answer Dad gave. My wife and I don’t ever debate “who’s the boss” (can you imagine discussing who the kids are solid line or dotted line to?!). We work together to deliver consistent messages, minimize ambiguity, and do things as efficiently as possible. Our kids, for example, only review their homework or prepare for exams with one, not both of us! This is a matrix — a dual chain of command — that works when there is communication, collaboration, coordination, and trust. And it breaks down when these things are missing.

Our kids never spend time wondering or worrying about who is in charge. If they get conflicting messages, they immediately seek clarity. If I happen to make a statement that contradicts something my wife has already decided, I will hear, “But Mom said …!”

I think most of us operate this way instinctively. So, it shouldn’t be a huge leap to bring this “matrix mindset” to work every day. It doesn’t need to be an anxiety-provoking concept that’s hard to grasp and even harder to manage. The matrix helps collaborate with the right stakeholders, get the right inputs and make the right decisions for the business. With good communication, collaboration, coordination and trust, organizations can use the matrix to grow their business and achieve our goals — both professionally and personally.

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  1. Hafiz Akram

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