New tools wanted

Wayne Thomas and David Bancroft-Turner explore some tools and ideas to help make Matrix structures work

If you put diesel into a vehicle designed to run on unleaded fuel – it will not work. Neither will a Matrix structure if the mind and skillsets of the people put into them are hierarchically orientated.

Matrix structures made their first modern day appearances during NASA’s space race era in the 1960s and 70s. It was found that vertically hierarchic methods of planning and organising were unsuitable for the co-ordination and engagement of diverse specialism groups, working on new knowledge-intensive technologies for use in the hostile setting of space.   

Initially, the ‘matrix management’ approach NASA used to address this problem was little more than a re-labelling of pre-existing project management methodologies, which suited the US aerospace industry at the time as it used horizontally hierarchic processes that people were familiar with. 

However, when other industries and sectors tried to replicate this seemingly new ‘matrixed’ way of operating in the late 70s/early 80s, it quickly became apparent that turning the hierarchy onto its side, calling it a ‘matrix’, and expecting people to work across functional boundaries they’d been taught couldn’t be crossed. It only caused confusion, conflict, resentment and resistance.

In subsequent years, especially during the ‘downsizing’ days of business process reengineering (BPR) in the 1990s, project-based structures relabelled as ‘matrix’ were sometimes used as scapegoat structures to replace organisational hierarchies, typically in an attempt to obscure redundancy or reorganising activities. In organisations where this happened, many would simply revert to using their old hierarchic operating structures within a few years of their ‘change’ programmes ending.

Curiously, however, most management books and academic case studies of the time often cited the ‘complex matrix structure’ and the ‘change resistant nature of people’ as the causes of such reversions. The more obvious reasons were collusion in consultancy advice, the dishonest selling of project management processes as matrix management practices, an excess of functional but lack of matrix leadership, or the organisational absence of ‘matrix working’ skills training and capability.

With hindsight, we can appreciate the problems people faced in the last century in trying to get their matrix structures to work, especially given that most management practices and corporate training agendas of that time focused on telling people how to make hierarchies work – and many still do! 

While a small number of successful matrix structures did emerge during the 20th century, such as WL Gore’s ‘lattice’ organisation1, the dominant hierarchical narrative, supported by countless academic theories and models that emphasised pyramidal ways of planning, organising and micro-managing people and resources, have created biased definitions for teamwork, management and leadership that persist to this day.

To test this point, pick up any book on leadership and as you read, ask yourself if there is an implicit assumption within the text that the leader is also a manager. Overwhelmingly, you will find this is the case and, subliminally, serves to reinforce a false, yet now almost universally held hierarchical organisational belief that being a leader is always ‘conditional’ on someone also being a manager!

Yet in most matrix organisations, people who are not managers will not only frequently lead their own team or colleagues from other specialism areas when the situation demands but they can also end up leading their own or other more senior managers on occasion. This is a practice that is not generally allowed in hierarchal structures as it breaks a basic ‘responsible-authority’ line management rule.

This highlights one of many differences between working in a hierarchy compared to a matrix. Where in the latter people will often have the responsibility, but not the authority, for executing goals that cut across functional boundary lines, which means they have to know how to ‘influence without authority’ to deliver results – especially if they don’t have any formal management ‘rank’!

Such ambiguity is not tolerated in hierarchies where people are taught to believe you can ‘delegate authority but not responsibility’. This reinforces yet another universally held hierarchically biased belief – that ‘authority’ and ‘responsibility’ are synonymous (i.e. two sides of the same coin), as are the two roles of management and leadership. To test these points, answer the following questions:

  • Who has the legitimate right to lead people in your organisation – everyone or just managers?
  • Who attends formal leadership training in your organisation – everyone or just managers?
  • Who should attend leadership training in your organisation – everyone or just managers?

If you instinctively answered ‘managers’ – it’s either because most of your early career was spent working in organisations with dominant hierarchic structures or it’s because you’re currently working in a dominant functional role and the answers are plainly obvious. 

However, if you’ve been working in a flexible matrix type role or structure for a while, the chances are you’ll have answered everyone – but the paradox is this – however you answered, you’re probably right for the type of organisational paradigm you’re working within!

In order for a paradigm to work, two self-fulfilling elements are needed: one physical in orientation, such as structures, strategies and systems, and one psychological in orientation, such as individual and collective knowledge, mind-sets and world views (e.g. shared assumptions, beliefs, preferences and prejudices), which generate habitual behaviours, ritualistic routines and preferred working practices.  

Organisations that attempt to implement matrix structures without first changing the psychological aspects of their existing paradigm from hierarchy to matrix usually become so fixated on trying to make the new physical elements work that they can lose sight of their stakeholders’ needs and core business aims. This makes a reversion back to hierarchic ways of working almost inevitable.

The only way to change a paradigm is to first gradually change its self-fulfilling psychological elements, until a tipping-point is reached which makes people realise (for themselves) that the old structures and strategies they are using are not as useful as they once were. This is because they don’t fit with the new ways of thinking and behaving that the majority of people will be using.

Since the turn of the century, in an attempt to make the transition from hierarchic to matrix ways of working less traumatic than it was in the past, matrix-type leadership, management and teamworking training has significantly increased in private, public and third sector organisations.

A decade or so ago, finding materials that could help people develop ‘matrix’ mind-sets and skills-sets was difficult. This was mainly because most of the pseudo-psychometrics, books, models, training and practices designed in the last century had hierarchical biases inherent within them. As a result L&D, professionals often had to artificially reposition, rework or shoe-horn hierarchically orientated materials into their matrix programmes in order to make them seem relevant. 

[pullquote]The challenge today therefore for managers, HR, L&OD and coaching professionals is to provide people with the mind, skill and tool-sets they need to make the new matrix type operating paradigms their organisations are introducing work[/pullquote].

Fortunately today facilitators and coaches can use new sense-making tools and techniques that enable them to help people learn how to teamwork, manage and lead others in matrix structures. One of these is The Matrix and Complex Environment (MaCE) Leadership Diagnostic Report (LDR)™, which organisations use to identify, develop and measure the seven MaCE capability areas they consider critical for individual and collective success in multi-dimensional structures.

On the face of it, the seven capability areas described in the MaCE LDR™ can seem like any other competency list. However, they don’t just help people to learn how to use a new MaCE orientated tool-kit and skill-set, they help people develop a new MaCE mind-set, which ultimately is what enable matrix-orientated operating paradigms to emerge and actually work!

The seven MaCE capability areas result from over a decade’s worth of research with both managers and customer-facing teams operating in multinational ‘matrix type’ organisations and can easily be remembered using the acronym ‘SPIRAL-C.

Stakeholder alignment – the ability to align stakeholders strategically and tactically in order to achieve inter-dependent goals and objectives.

Political intelligence – the ability to navigate the political landscape of an organisation for the positive benefit of self and other stakeholders.

Intrapreneurial creativity – the ability to provide innovative and entrepreneurial, stakeholder-focused business solutions, both within and across organisational and geographical boundary lines.

Relationship intelligence – the ability to pro-actively develop and maintain an influential and inclusive range of short and long-term collaborative stakeholder relationships.

Ambiguity management – the ability to solve ambiguous problems and work effectively in situations or structures that lack clarity by working with stakeholders to create ‘local’ clarity and purposeful direction.

Leadership accountability – the ability to show flexible leadership and teamworking skills and to take responsibility for making decisions and initiating action.  

Conflict handling – the ability to handle inter-personal and mediate inter-stakeholder conflicts. 

The seven capability areas represent ‘special additives’ that go into the developmental fuel mix that organisations use to enable people to achieve their maximum levels of individual and collective performance. Capabilities that everyone in the organisation have to consistently develop and demonstrate if the advantages of using a MaCE type structure are to be fully realised.

Each capability area has a menu of different types of developmental solutions that facilitators and coaches can use to help people develop higher capability levels. For example in the stakeholder alignment area, in addition to analysis, mapping and influencing tools, there’s the VUCA framework which can be used to strategically assess and operationally address the disruptive effects that local or global paradigm challenging events can have on countries, companies, teams and individuals alike.

The acronym VUCA was first used by the US military in the 1990s to help battlefield commanders recognise and respond to the psychological effects associated with operating in an ‘asymmetric’ (irregular, uneven, unpredictable) warfare environment.

Volatility – represents the overwhelming speed with which a paradigm challenging or changing causal trigger event can destabilise a status quo. This can result in local, regional or global conditions that can manifest as confusion, chaos, coalitions of convenience, criminality or conflict.

Uncertainty – represents a lack of outcome certainty, where the inability to anticipate or control emergent situational events can manifest as fatalism, fearful anxiety, panic or terror.

Complexity – represents an inability to make informed, appropriate and timely decisions based on relevant and reliable ‘real world’ information. This can be apparent as analysis paralysis, under or over-reactions or estimations, apathy or denial; or the pursuit of irrational ideologies or doctrinal plans.

Ambiguity – represents an inability to understand, contextualise or rapidly resolve new, unfamiliar or complex problems due to a lack of appropriate mind and skillsets. This can be seen as confusion, collusion, indecision, inaction, scapegoating, illogical problem inflation, incitement or insurrection.

In corporate contexts, VUCA frameworks are often used today as ‘sense-checking’ tools to determine which factor or factors are causing, or could cause, real or imaginary problems to occur in an internal or external operating environment that need to be addressed, countered, leveraged
or exploited.

Like the seven MaCE capability areas, the solutions to combat the VUCA effect factors can also appear unremarkable. Yet they too can be challenging for some people to put into practice, especially those whose organisational upbringing has conditioned them to reject any new way of thinking, being or doing that’s different to that which their paradigm prefers them to use to make sense of the world.

Known as the ‘VUCA Prime’ solutions, these solutions suggest the following changein interpretation.

Volatility becomes Vision – create a shared sense of stability through a common purpose.

Uncertainty becomes Understanding – directly address the fearful anxieties felt by people.

Complexity becomes Clarity – use empowering and collaborative sense-making processes.

Ambiguity becomes Agility – deploy a range of flexible ‘MaCE specific’ capabilities at pace.

What the VUCA framework starkly highlighted to the US military in the 90s and noughties, however, was that in order to combat irregular forces operating in asymmetric environments, heterarchic (MaCE) type capabilities were needed – not the hierarchic ones they were doctrinally locked into developing and deploying. This situation was mirrored in the corporate world at the time.

Since the turn of this century, there is little doubt the landscape on which organisations operate has become more VUCA. The corporate response to which having been a significant but subtle increase in the use of matrix type structures, training and operating paradigms. 

The organisational challenge today is to find new tools and techniques that enable people to work in a much more unpredictable and changeable world using processes and practices that are more flexible compared to the hierarchical ones of yesteryear. 


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