Leadership in the matrix – how complex would you like your spiders' web to be?

A closeup view of the Skylab space station tak...

Spiders’ webs were first spun in low earth orbit in 1973 aboard Skylab.

Two female spiders called Arabella and Anita were part of an experiment on the Skylab 3 mission. The aim of the experiment was to test whether the two spiders would spin webs in space; they did!

At the time the spiders were spinning their webs, we were beginning to talk about matrix organizations and how to make them successful.

The matrix approach grew up alongside the emergence of project management in the early high-tech industries including NASA.  As has been said many times before; the matrix approach is relatively easy to describe but can be challenging in the extreme to manage.

The matrix organization evolved when horizontal relationships, say between subject matter experts, became as important as traditional, vertical reporting lines. Traditional hierarchies were no longer the most efficient way to deliver business.  So the lattice, web-like matrix structure emerged.

This was usually with a functional “line manager” responsible for professional development, reward etc and, say, a project manager responsible for the services to be delivered for a fixed period or for a piece of work.

Now the matrix can apply across cultural and country boundaries as well as across functions.

But, when resources are short and all are focusing on achieving more with less, deciding priorities in the matrix can be difficult.

To succeed a matrix requires absolute clarity from its leaders about the outcomes required.   Clear direction – not the day-to-day detail!  This should be direction that allows competing priorities further down the organization to be resolved in the interests of the organization as a whole.

Senior leaders need to sponsor the matrix structure actively and  make sure that it continues to meet the needs of the organization.  They need to understand how cultural barriers can get in the way of the success and how people can work to overcome them.

Also they should ensure that  governance needs are met despite the matrix structure.  There has to be absolute clarity about who, at the end of the day, is accountable for what!  If there has to dual accountability, then the basis for this needs to be negotiated before other commitments are made.

Communication and informal networks will be critical and leaders can stimulate this by creating a climate of trust and openness.  A matrix will not thrive alongside a culture of blame!

To give their best, people have to understand why a matrix organization exists and what is in it for them.  They should have confidence in their leaders if they are to live with the in-built ambiguity; as well as responsibility and accountability often without authority.

Leaders will want to ensure there is real matrix management capability within the organization so that flexibility and responsiveness are enhanced and barriers are broken down.  Without this, a matrix structure can lead to delay, increased cost and lower job satisfaction.

Make sure you,  as the leader, and your people have the real capability to make your matrix structure work.

I’ve worked with organizations that made their matrix structure work for them and helped them stay at the front of their sector.  I’ve worked with others torn apart by internal strife and without clear leadership.  I would love to hear what your experience has been.

  • Types of Organizational Charts (brighthub.com)
  • Bertrand Duperrin: Social Collaboration? (sfh.naasat.in)
  • How to Master “Matrix Boss Madness” (psychologytoday.com)

Wendy Mason works as a consultant, business coach and blogger. Adept at problem solving, she is a great person to bring in when that one thing you thought was straightforward turns out not to be! If you have a problem talk to Wendy – she can help you – email her atwendymason@wisewolfconsulting.com or ring ++44(0)7867681439