Managing the Matrix

When you’re working in a matrixed environment, you have to deal with a lot of moving parts.

It’s rare to find a company nowadays that isn’t matrixed. With the rise of digital strategies, globalization, and remote work arrangements, the need to work across divisions, teams, and geographical boundaries is greater than ever.
But working in a matrixed environment – particularly managing projects and initiatives in such an environment, comes with some serious challenges.
And when those challenges aren’t properly handled? It can mean delayed decision-making, declines in customer satisfaction or, worse, a loss of revenue for your organization.
Affording Yourself the Time
When you’re working in a matrixed environment, you have to deal with a lot of moving parts. As an example, on larger enterprise deals, I may need input from five different departments - the legal team, the product management team, our stakeholders, and our customers all at once – and balancing all these plates can get overwhelming if I haven’t fully planned ahead for it.
From the outset, it’s crucial to know the full scope of your project’s requirements – as well as the disparate teams that will play into that. If you don’t allow enough time or plan for the true complexity of the initiative from the very start, you’ll either hold the project back or lose the deal altogether – all of which can mean lost revenue for your company.
What a Great Matrix Manager Looks Like
When it comes to managing projects in the matrix, there’s a lot more to it than just looking ahead (though that certainly can help move things in the right direction). In my experience, all good matrix managers share three common traits: high emotional intelligence, the ability to handle conflict effectively and efficiently, and strong skills of persuasion.
Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is often the unsung hero of success – whether in a matrixed organization or not. Managers with high emotional intelligence are aware of both themselves and the people who surround them, and they practice a mix of assertiveness, empathy, self-confidence, and flexibility that resonates with virtually everyone they work with.
Part of being emotionally intelligent is learning to manage your approach when interacting with others. I’ve found that reading the room, putting myself in others’ shoes, and adjusting my style, pace, and content based on that assessment is vital to really connecting with the people I’m collaborating with – be they colleagues, direct-reports, or even executives.
An ability to tackle conflict head-on is also key for a matrix manager, as working with cross-functional teams will always undoubtedly lead to some sort of conflict along the way. It’s important to note that being a good matrix manager doesn’t mean you never have conflict in your projects; conflict just comes with the territory. What marks a good manager is their ability to listen deeply, be respectful of each party’s opinions, and be flexible, accommodating, and willing to compromise to reach a solution.
Emotional intelligence also plays largely into conflict management, as empathy is crucial to understanding the other person’s points of view and differences. Matrix managers can also use their EQ to create “win-win” scenarios that work for all parties, as well as the organization’s overall goals as a whole.
Finally, great matrix managers are able to persuade and influence. They’re credible, they know how to find common ground, and they know how to position new solutions as beneficial options for all involved. They’re also able to use data, business intelligence, and other facts to support their decisions and rationales – a key component of persuasion.
Better Managing Your Matrix
The skills that make a great matrix manager aren’t learned in a day but developed over time, with experience, and by interacting with others who bring different perspectives to the table.
And though you can’t flip a switch and become an expert matrix manager overnight, there are a few steps you can take to start the balling rolling.

  • Build more diverse teams – Adding diversity to your teams can boost success, improve revenue, and expose you to unique mindsets that challenge you as a manager.
  • Shadow someone you admire – If you recognize there’s a skill you lack, find someone who has it and is willing to share their knowledge. The best way to gain a new skill set is to learn from others who already have those skills and use them well. Locate someone in your organization with the skills you desire, and interview them, shadow them for a day or ask for their guidance in developing your own skillsets.
  • Solve, don’t escalate – Try to be a problem-solver in all things. It can be tempting to go to your boss when you want a quick solution, but the more you work as an individual or with your teams to problem-solve independently, the stronger and more confident in your abilities you will become.
  • Resist overuse of email – Email is a great resource for documenting what has occurred and what’s coming down the pipeline, but it’s much less effective at managing problems, conflict, complexities, and relationships. Before sending an email, ask yourself: “Is this a conversation better had in person? Could it further my relationship with this colleague? Could we get better results? Could this email be misconstrued?" Challenge yourself to create more consistent processes and methods of communications when managing complex projects and problems.  
  • Switch up jobs – You never know what a colleague or other division is dealing with until you’ve been in their shoes, so whenever possible, put yourself in those shoes. Take advantage of experiences that allow you to see first-hand what other people in the pipeline are faced with. Ultimately, rotating assignments or jobs can allow you to be more empathetic to other team members and their points of view.  

I’ve only recently worked in a global position, and I can tell you I’ve learned a lot. In my previous jobs – which were limited to North America – I had no frame of reference for what my worldwide colleagues were dealing with daily. Now, I know, and I’m able to better understand the points of view of both my home-based and worldwide teams.
Improve your skills
Self-assessment can be difficult, especially when there’s nothing wrong, per se. How do you determine what skills you need to work on? What should you focus your efforts on to improve your management capabilities?
One way is to intentionally plan for an upcoming meeting or project. Determine your strategy, identify your stakeholders and decision-makers, and thoughtfully think about your approach and style to best target them.  
Think through possible areas of conflict and how you will address them. What evidence are you presenting to support your position and make you credible? Once the meeting is over, assess yourself and determine how effective you were in reading the room, adapting your style and building your case.   The ability to influence and be persuasive is key to successfully managing the matrix – so work toward honing these skills daily. 
The main goal is to constantly move forward – to learn, grow, and develop your abilities as a manager. In the end, managing in the matrix requires flexibility, empathy, and collaboration.  It also requires that you take conflict head on – which tends to be an area many don’t rate themselves very effective at. The more you put yourself in challenging situations and the more thoughtful you are in your approach, the more confidence you’ll gain – both in managing broad cross-functional teams and in spearheading more complex projects.   

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