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Help! The Matrix is messing with me!

The Management Centre

Working in a matrix should be empowering, agile and developmental. So why am I finding it confusing, hard and messy?

Put simply, matrix management is about dual reporting lines. Someone based in a regional office might report to the regional manager – the geographical line – and to the head of their department who’s based elsewhere – the functional line. Matrix management is also growing more popular as organisations increasingly move to project working. A project team is put together by pulling in people and expertise from across the organisation. During the lifetime of the project each individual is then reporting to both the project manager and their departmental line manager. A matrix structure can be formally recognised or informally de facto.

Here’s a typical example of the concern some feel about the system:

I understand that working in a matrix organisation can be hugely rewarding and should offer great opportunities for my personal and professional development. I like the idea of have a clear sense of purpose, and getting more responsibility, control and authority over my work. And I love making connections with people I might otherwise never get to meet.
But it’s not like that. My line manager doesn’t really understand my work – and I don’t understand how it fits into the bigger picture. I’m overloaded and not convinced that things are fair, but I don’t know who to talk to about it. It’s not clear how much my line and work (task) managers share information or whether there are some things they will keep confidential.

If this is sounding uncomfortably familiar, help is at hand. We’ve put together five top tips to help you turn your matrix working from messy to meaningful. These tips come from our own experience, our expertise in leadership and management, and discussions we’ve had with people from across the sector:

  1. Be clear about your Goals and Priorities. Understand what outcomes and results are expected of you – i.e. make sure you know how your work contributes to the project or programme success, and find out what success would look like. Agree these with your project or task manager.
  2. Be clear about your Authority. Understand when you can make decisions and when you need to seek guidance, approval or sign off. If you are not sure, ask. If you feel you have too much authority ask for additional support in making decisions.
  3. Involve your managers. Tell both your managers what you think is working, and what is not working, then… offer solutions – what do you suggest you should do differently? How (practically) can they help you?
  4. Receive feedback positively. Be open to it and see it as a learning opportunity. If you are not clear on why particular feedback has been given, or do not understand it, don’t get defensive, ask questions. What could I do differently? What is working well? Can you give me an example?
  5. Build your network. Get to know what other people are doing, and their priorities. Reciprocate by sharing what you are doing and your priorities. Find out how colleagues connect to your work and how your work can support them.

You might not be able to do this all in one go, but by addressing these key areas you should find that working in a matrix can be hugely rewarding. And if you’re a manager, have a look at our top tips on managing in a matrix too.

What’s next?

We can help you and your team navigate your matrix in a range of ways – from consultancy, to team away days, to skills development programmes. Contact us online or call us on 020 7978 1516 to discuss how we can help you and your teams sort out your matrix.

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Laura Slater

About Laura Slater

Laura specialises in project governance and management, as well as leadership and management development. Laura has 8 years’ experience in the charity sector, in particular developing and delivering regional...