Three Secrets to Thriving in an Organizational Matrix

First, recognize that almost all medium to large organizations are actually matrix organizations. Most of these organizations have a direct “vertical” reporting line based on one organizational dimension and at least one “horizontal” based on another dimension.  Sometimes the formal vertical is a function like development, production, marketing, sales, etc.  Sometimes it’s geographical or line of business or target market. Whatever the verticals are, the affinities across the remaining dimensions make up the horizontals. For example, if your organization is organized by target market, you can bet each of the people responsible for marketing across those different target markets are talking and comparing notes. At least, they are if they want to be successful.

Almost every organization has a matrix. Some organizations try to actively manage the matrix, some don’t. Some organizations like to pretend there isn’t a matrix because management consultants have told them it’s too complicated to organize that way. If your organization isn’t managing its matrix, you need to do it yourself.

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash*

Second,  start learning to navigate the horizontals even if there are no “dotted lines” to follow.  If you have a functional responsibility that is spread across other staff in other verticals, start communicating across that horizontal. One good strategy is to develop a mentor relationship. If you are new to your role, find a “wily veteran” with a similar role in another vertical who is willing to mentor you and help you see the dynamics in your vertical from an outside perspective. If you are the “wily veteran,” seek out someone new to the role in another vertical and get the fresh perspective that can come from more recently minted expertise. You can share valuable advice on how to avoid the historical organizational landmines in exchange for innovative thinking from someone with fresh eyes on the problem.

There are all kinds of ways to facilitate communication across informal horizontals ranging from “lunch bunches” to virtual groups on collaboration platforms to annual conferences. Don’t spend all your time with people in your “box” in the matrix. People who know how to walk the lines that make up the boxes in the matrix will be the ones who get complicated things done.

Third, prepare for the organizational matrix to change. For some good reasons (and lots of questionable ones), organizations tend to “roll the matrix” every three or four years. Organizations that were organized by function move to geographical verticals, for example, and later move to market segments based on some customer attribute. The matrix permutations seem endless and the justifications for the resulting reorgs are frequently (how shall I say it) imaginative. By actively navigating whatever your organization’s horizontals are at the present, you will be ahead of the game when the next “roll of the matrix” comes. You will have a broader network of relationships and understanding of how things actually get done which will put you in a better position to influence future directions and your own career path.

Actively manage your role in the matrix now and you will be better prepared for the next roll of the matrix later.

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*I couldn’t resist choosing this photo for this blog post.  Read more here about Cats and the Internet.

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