Plan your evolution

Confused by The Matrix? You are not alone.

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Many years ago when The Matrix came out everyone was talking about it because of its ingenious visuals. I found it neat to watch but was really confused by the plot. My coworkers were aghast that I didn’t love the movie as much as they did. (Sometimes movies are as controversial as politics around the water cooler.)

Ironically, my coworkers and I ourselves were in a matrix. We did not know it at the time because no one talked about organizational structures in the 90s beyond complaining. In a perfect world, a reporting structure that looks more like a swatch of plaid then a triangle can mean better cross-functional coordination and standardization. In reality, it meant you are never really sure who is actually in charge.

Our matrix structure worked relativity well when all the managers reported to a single well-respected executive because she served as mediator and advisor on all conflicts. Once she left, things changed for the worse because ultimately, the matrix was built for individuals rather than positions. Without her, determining if the Project Manager could overrule the Development Manager or Art Director became a fight rather than a given.

Once our matrix descended into a territorial fight, it ceased to reap any benefits. That was because a matrix without collaborative productivity is hard to work in. Here’s the thing about the matrix organizational structure that rarely gets discussed: a matrix organizational structure automatically creates dozens of collaborative groups. A few get names, a leader and a bit of structure. Most are ad hoc, managed informally and treated as invisible.

If you want to make sure a matrix organizational structure creates productivity instead of robbing you of it, treat it like the inter-connected system of collaborative groups that it actually is. Below is a simplified process for understanding how collaboration impacts your matrix.

Always start with scope.

It would be very valuable for large organizations to analyze the quantity and types of collaboration they rely on. This would also be very time consuming. Determine before you begin how deep into the structure you will be looking. Are you going to focus on just functional or department managers or everyone?

Update your organizational chart.

If for some reason, you don’t have a current organizational chart, it’s time to create one. Each box should list the job title and then the name of the person in that role. You can write it on paper or use software to create one. For small structures, keep it simple and use SmartArt in Microsoft Word. If you need something more sophisticated, I like SmartDraw and Visio for this.

Ask everyone how they collaborate.

You need to ask everyone on the chart the same set of questions to determine how their work is impacted by collaborative groups. You can send out a survey or talk with them. Take notes. You want to determine the following:

  1. When they work with three or more people to:
    • Make decisions that set the parameters for organizations, programs or projects
    • Analyze a situation and provide expert recommendations on solutions
    • Share information that helps them better complete their own tasks
    • Coordinate development of a product or service together
  2. Who they are working with (in each instance above)
  3. How formalized this alliance is (e.g. group name, ongoing vs. ad hoc, leader, roles and responsibility, accountability, purpose, etc.)

Note: This process is about identification of groups, not Organizational Monsters so keep the questions about how well things work for a different day.

Finally, cross reference.

Create an Excel spreadsheet that allows you to cross reference the job titles to the collaborative groups. Transfer the survey or discussion answers to the spreadsheet and to see how your matrix really functions. The number of collaborative groups, mostly informal will likely be shocking. The formality people report is actually the level of clarity about authority, relationships and expectations. Depending on what your spreadsheet looks like, you may be ready to get more strategic in how you collaborate.

Since that weekend in the 90’s, I have rewatched the original Matrix (and the sequels). I still don’t understand them. Luckily, I now understand how to navigate through a matrix organization because I know the key: stop treating the collaborative groups as invisible.

About Megan Wilmoth

Megan Wilmoth has built and managed products ranging from custom software for Fortune 1000 companies to marketing platforms for manufactures. She’s overseen work that impacts hundreds of organizations, thousands of individuals and millions of data points. Her ability to plan and mitigate allow her to succeed in whatever is thrown her way. She is President of Planosaurus, a consulting firm that helps organizations plan to do more with less.

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  • Megan Wilmoth,
  • October 27, 2016


  • Shalin, November 24, 2016 at 9:50 am |

    Another way to update a organizational chart over time is Creately Org Chart Software . Its an online cloud based solution that can be used to draw and host your diagrams online then embed anywhere you want. When ever the original diagram gets updated the embedded ones will get updated as well.

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