ArticlesOctober 23, 2016

Confused by The Matrix? You are not alone.

Many years ago, when The Matrix came out, everyone talked about it because of its ingenious visuals. I found it neat to watch, but I was 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 were in a matrix. We did not know it at the time because no one talked about organizational structures in the 1990s beyond complaining. In a perfect world, a reporting structure that looks more like a swatch of plaid than a triangle can mean better cross-functional coordination and standardization. In reality, it meant you were never really sure who was actually in charge.

Our matrix structure worked relativity well when all the managers reported to a single well-respected executive because she served as a 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: it 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 ensure that a matrix organizational structure creates productivity instead of robbing you of it, treat it like the interconnected system of collaborative groups that it is. Below is a simplified process for understanding how collaboration impacts your matrix.

Always start with scope.

Large organizations could benefit from analyzing the quantity and types of collaboration they rely on. However, this would also be time-consuming. Before you begin, determine how deep into the structure you will look. Are you going to focus on just functional or department managers or everyone?

Update your organizational chart.

If 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.

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:

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 the development of a product or service together

Who they are working with (in each instance above)

How formal is this alliance (e.g., group name, ongoing vs. ad hoc, leader, roles, responsibility, accountability, purpose, etc.)?

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

Finally, cross reference.

Create an Excel spreadsheet to cross-reference the job titles to the collaborative groups. Transfer the survey or discussion answers to the spreadsheet to see how your matrix functions. The number of cooperative groups, primarily informal, will likely be shocking. The formality people report is 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 90s, I have rewatched the original Matrix (and the sequels). I still don’t understand them. Luckily, I now understand how to navigate a matrix organization because I know the key: stop treating collaborative groups as invisible.