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The Global Matrix: Making Them Work

Today’s leadership challenges are remarkably different from those of only a few short years ago.  Today’s modern, complex organizations are leaner, flatter, spread over more time zones, and involve complex webs of influence across what is coming to be known as a Global Matrix.

Decline of Functional and Rise of Matrix Structures

The emergence of The Global Matrix is not a new phenomenon.  Matrix management has been around for decades but has come of age within the last decade.  This is because it holds the promise of increased flexibility and speed of decision making and is an alternative to the command and control mindset of traditional functional organizations.  Unfortunately, the blurring of roles and responsibilities, the presence of multiple bosses, he absence of direct reports, especially in a global company, often leads to paralysis, role confusion / conflict and loss of responsiveness.  We have also seen some organizations driven nearly mad by a continual organizational tinkering to “fix the glitches”.

The original thinking behind this organizational form was to provide rapid, fluid access to information and link that information to results more rapidly than is possible in functional organizations with their rigid boundaries and well defended turfs.  The challenges for people living in the matrix include a lack of formal authority, the need to influence across the matrix as well as up and down the hierarchy, often with no direct reports and multiple bosses.  Often, one’s career and performance are managed within one element of the matrix, but one’s business results are experienced in another sphere.  Thus, the engineer’s “solid line” functional boss may be responsible for the performance review, but one’s “dotted line” business unit boss is directly impacted by the engineer’s success or lack thereof in accomplishing goals.  Unfortunately in many organizations, the “solid line” and “dotted line” bosses fail to collaborate on what the engineer cares about: his or her career and performance management.

Me vs. Us

In addition to often being in a sort of “career limbo”, individuals throughout the matrix continue to be focused on their unique roles and functional disciplines.  They each bring, in other words, “the baggage” of their individual perspectives to the party.  Whereas aligning these unique roles and perspectives has been a problem as long as humans have organized themselves in groups, the alignment challenge actually becomes urgent in a matrix structure.  This is because the coordination mechanisms (i.e bureaucracy) of the older functional organizations are less dominant.  And the stress of constantly monitoring one’s own perspective and leadership style and seeking ways to align the multiple perspectives and styles across the organization can be very difficult. 

For American corporations, these issues of coordination are rooted partly in the ethos of individualism that defines US history.  For decades, the educational system reinforced this individualism.  Students in the 60’s (today’s senior executives) were evaluated on their individual papers and projects.  Today’s young managers grew up working in and being evaluated on teams beginning in elementary school.  With this change to a more collectivist orientation, down the road, we should see a labor force that works well in teams, but for the next decade or so, we will continue to see the stress, conflict and inefficiencies we associate today with life in The Global Matrix.

Making The Global Matrix Work

We come now to the question of how to improve the implementation of matrix management.  The answer to this is the same as it has been for decades: develop people so that they understand the requirements and the tools needed to coordinate and manage each other more effectively.  Our colleague, Bert Spector at Northeastern University has written widely on the need for an organization to first identify the roles and responsibilities.  So many organizations miss this point and rely on restructurings and job descriptions to define organizational relationships.  But these documents simply describe the key tasks required of an organization or job and do not lay out the overall business relationships and associated behaviors required for success. 

In our leadership development programs, we teach our clients to use a simple process called the RIO.  This acronym stands for Responsibilities, Indicators, Objectives and was designed by Walt Mahler to be a line management tool to help in coordinating diverse roles.  It is a very simple concept.  Its genius lies in its use as a tool for frequent communication over roles and responsibilities and how these interact in a complex, changing business environment.  To see and download the RIO, click here.

Beyond using the right management tools, what else can we do to help those in The Global Matrix to work more effectively with each other?  First, executive development and management training become more important than ever.  But this training is not, as is often conceived of by conventional training companies or internal training departments, simply a skills problem.  Sure, teaching skills such as negotiation or performance management is valuable.  But today’s training environment requires a new approach. 

Mahler Co. solutions utilize proprietary 360 surveys and assessments that help anchor our students firmly in their own strengths.  We then use those strengths to help students implement 100 day projects.  These projects are defined in partnership between the student and senior management.  The training provided in leadership, change management, business strategy, innovation and growth, finance are all focused on these projects and on their success.  We find that overworked, under prepared managers in The Global Matrix appreciate management education that is focused on helping them help the company be successful.  Too many programs out there in the marketplace are focused on indoctrination and squander the opportunity to bring executive leadership into the classroom to provide the help and support that is often lacking in today’s organizations.

In addition, our training focuses on individual coaching on personal values and career planning.  We help students define their goals and map these to a desired career path.  They leave our programs prepared to conduct a Career Dialogue with their boss(s) to ensure that these key individuals are in alignment.

Program implementation changes with each client, but the bedrock principles are the same: feedback, coaching, skills, application, review, partnership with senior leadership.

Our students often tell us that living in The Global Matrix is a lonely existence.  We use our Executive Education Programs to put a human face on the matrix.  People brought together in one physical location to meet, work together and find a common perspective is the basis for success in today’s Global Matrix.

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