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The Two Word Secret to Making the Matrix Work

Leadership Matrix TrainingThe matrix is here to stay. It’s an organizational structure, when done right, that can be agile and responsive to the market; can knit together global and local priorities; can leverage centralized skills and can enable local accountability.

Done wrong, it can slow momentum to a crawl; it can trigger work-arounds; it offers endless “alignment loops” to delay any decision for months; it can frustrate teams and exhaust leaders.

What makes the difference?

The people and their behaviors. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

Jay Galbraith spent over 40 years studying matrix organizations and what he learned shaped his point of view that matrix organizations need to align the five elements of his Star model to be successful. One of the five elements he highlights is people. For matrix organizations to work effectively, everyone, at all levels, needs to be more collaborative, networked and empowered than in a hierarchical structure.

So what’s the secret sauce?

Dramatically increasing your use of the words “why” and “because.”

Matrix structures shine a light on organizational tensions. Getting underneath positions and demands of conflicting organizations requires understanding the intent and reasoning for their requests. “Why” and “because” enable employees and teams to see organizational tensions in a different light and find creative solutions to make progress.

Leaders and teams who take the time to ask “why” and explain “because” create openings for that understanding. Those leaders shift their meetings and conversations to a fundamentally different, and more productive, plane.

Sounds simple, but there is a rub. As our communications cycles are more abbreviated, messages are shortened to tweets, and attention spans are measured in dwindling seconds; we are rapidly losing explanations. Leaders have to consciously pause and “zoom-out” or “step-back” and remember to explain the intent, purpose or need behind a direction. In the absence of the explanation of why, tensions escalate. It’s tougher to find a path to a common ground. The matrix suffers.

In our leadership development programs, we focus on helping leaders take the time to articulate ”why” and ”because” for their strategies and their execution choices. It’s not always easy to remember to do. In the pressure of decision making, leaders resort to shorthand, but it’s at exactly those moments that the explanations behind your comments—the “why” and “because”-- are most important to articulate. Those two words align teams and organizations, and offer an opening to raise issues and concerns, better than any other words in the leadership vocabulary.

Collaborative Leadership starts with two simple words that can make the matrix deliver on its promise.


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.