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Mind over Structure: Four Secrets to Leading in a Matrix

Leading in a MatrixLeading in a matrix is an exercise in frustration for many individuals. The duality of reporting; the complexity of resource allocation; the need for alignment, and (gasp!) compromise can be wearing for leaders. While the design looks good on paper, the real-life collision of conflicting goals can drive some leaders into retreat. “So what?” some sigh. “Why should I try? What difference can I make?” Alternately, some tighten their blinders like a racehorse and hit the gas: “I’m going to ask for forgiveness not permission! I’ve been told to lead, so that’s what I’m going to do.” Organizations devolve into functional silos and leaders struggle to influence teams whose work they need but don’t control. Either way, the leader’s mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for how the organization operates.

Working effectively in a matrix doesn’t start with an org structure. It starts with the mindset leaders bring to the environment.

Matrix structures are fundamentally based on conflicting priorities—the product organization has one set of needs; the country organization has another; the functional support team has a third. Matrix structures are designed to make visible the trade-offs, compromise and implications of decisions across the boundaries. Leaders can leverage that ‘rub” or let it limit them. It’s an important mindset choice.

At Insight Experience, when we put leaders into a matrix business simulation, we focus on four behaviors that demonstrate the leaders’ mindset to the organization. Time and again, we see evidence that these “soft” skills are the signal of a mindset that is vital to making the “hard structure” of the matrix work:

  • Assume positive intent. Teams and leaders who don’t see things the way you do aren’t explicitly out to undermine your objectives. They are focused on achieving different objectives. Simply coming into a conversation interested in understanding what they need and why they hold the position they do changes the nature of the dialogue. Assuming positive intent enables a productive start to addressing issues and builds a tone and culture in the organization that can sustain activity in even the toughest circumstances.
  • Embrace issues as early as possible: don’t let them linger. The inevitable rub and conflict between teams and organizations are only a problem if they ferment and calcify into hardened positions. If there’s an issue, the sooner it’s on the table and visible and debated and discussed the better chance a leader has in finding a productive, accelerated path through the “rub.”
  • Balance making decisions with outlining principles. Matrix organizations work best if as many people as possible are empowered to make decisions aligned to the organization’s broader direction. For that to work, employees and leaders at all levels need to understand how to make decisions, not just which decisions they are empowered to make. Leaders can help this by explaining the principles to consider when making a choice, rather than just making the decision for the team.
  • Lead for the shared objective. It’s tempting to narrow your frame to your team’s deliverables, your organization’s goals; but you are a leader. It’s your role to ‘be the adult in the room’ and bring the broader cross-organizational perspective to your thinking, your communication, your team meetings and your decisions.

Leading in a matrix is all about partnering with others to achieve a greater goal. Your mindset as a leader is the “soft” secret to making a matrix organization deliver on its promise. Booz and Company’s in house publication, Strategy and Business, recently quoted Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, as offering a guiding principle for leading in a matrix. His perspective? The operating rule “could be as simple as “It’s a win for both of us or there’s no deal.”"


Amanda Young Hickman is co-founder of Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.