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Are you a matrix manager or a matrix victim?


Matrix what? Kevan Hall explains the new skillset required to be a successful manager in the modern business world.

Traditionally, organisations were structured around vertical 'silos' of functions and geographyToday, global customers and supply chains, and more integrated functions and business processes that cut across the organisation, mean that much more work is delivered 'horizontally' (through teams that cut across silos)

Many large organisations are responding to this reality with a formal matrix organisation structure where people have reporting lines to more than one boss. 

This style of working is a big step up in complexity in both leadership and in the way we work with colleagues. Multiple bosses, accountability without control, influence without authority and competing goals become the norm. Individuals working within this complex environment tend to respond in one of two ways: they become a matrix victim or a matrix manager.

The matrix victim feels overwhelmed by the complexity and waits for someone else to solve their problems. They expect their managers to set their goals, clarify their role and provide clear prioritisation and direction. They are usually disappointed. 

The matrix manager realises that their bosses each only have part of the picture, and that they themselves are the only individual with a full understanding of their own goals and role. They are certainly the person who should have the most motivation to resolve any lack of clarity. A matrix requires much higher levels of self-direction and gives us a real opportunity to shape our own roles – but only if we have the mindset and skillset to succeed.

Here are some of the most common complaints of the matrix victim and how the matrix manager responds:

  • 'My goals are not clear.' In a matrix, it is normal for goals from the different reporting lines to compete for our time and attention. The matrix manager escalates goals that are truly in conflict but understands the big picture so they can prioritise inevitable competition for resources. Where goals are not clear, they create their own proposals.

  • 'I dont have a job description and am not clear about what I should be doing.' The kind of person who wants their role box to be tightly drawn is likely to be unhappy in a matrix. The matrix manager relishes the freedom to take on what needs to be done.

  • 'I dont have the authority to get things done.' This is a common complaint from managers who have been used to getting things done through position. But do we really want managers today who can only get things done through power? This usually represents a lack of confidence in their own skills and ability to get things done through influence. The matrix manager realises there are many more sources of power than just position. They use expertise, persuasion, networks and a much wider range of strategies to get things done.

  • 'I cannot be accountable for things I do not control.' Again, this is often the refrain of the manager who has been used to having complete control over the resources they need to get things done. The matrix manager realises that in a complex organisation we very rarely have complete control over resources. They explore innovative ways of doing things and create alliances with people who do have the resources they need. 

  • 'My manager doesn't empower me.' In a matrix we can't afford people who wait to be empowered. Empowerment is always two-way: I often ask people 'What have you done to earn the right to be empowered?' Matrix managers seek out the opportunity to take on more and push back against unnecessary micromanagement.

The formal matrix structure usually only adds value at middle management level in large organisations, and even there, this level of complexity is not for everyone(Companies like IBM and Cisco found that when they introduced a matrix structure they lost about 20% of their management population.) However, matrix working, where we are members of multiple teams with competing goals and high levels of change, is becoming normal much lower down the organisation. 

The difference between the matrix manager and the matrix victim is one of mindset and skill set. The matrix mindset is about thinking more broadly across the organisation: it's about managing yourself, influencing others and being flexible and comfortable with ambiguity. However, we can't expect people to adopt this mindset if they don’t have the skill set to back it up. If managers don't have the skills to influence without authority or deliver accountability without control, for example, then inevitably they will either  fall back on their old way of doing things or feel out of control.

Matrix management is less about structure and more about skills and ways of working. In this, learning and developing people have a critical role in making the matrix work. Does your learning and development curriculum build the skills necessary for working in complex, matrix-led, virtual and global organisations?

Kevan Hall is CEO of Global Integration, a training and consulting organisation which specialises in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is the author of Making the Matrix Work – how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity’, and Speed Lead – faster, simpler ways to manage people, projects and teams in complex companies.’ You can receive a free executive summary of Kevan's new book ‘Making the Matrix Work’ and more on the skill set required for matrix success from

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