The fundamental difference between effective and less effective matrix organizations is whether the tension between different perspectives is creative or destructive. While various processes, systems and tools can help, what matters most is what top leadership says and does and how that flows through the organization in shared targets, clear accountabilities, live team interactions and team-building transparency and behaviors.

Getting matrix management right is linked inextricably to an organization’s culture – the only sustainable competitive advantage. Key components of a culture can be grouped into behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and the environment.

Environment and values: Each organization has its own environment, context and bedrock values. Everyone needs to know what matters and why. Don’t try to do anything else until you’ve got that set.

Attitude is about choices: An organization’s overall strategy drives choices about which of its parts will be best in class (superior), world class (parity), strong (above average), or simplified/outsourced to be good enough. These choices help determine the need for a matrix and how best to design it.

Relationships and behaviors: This is why organizations have matrices. The most effective of them best balance focus and collaboration. They allow leaders and teams to build differential strengths and then work together to make the best possible decisions and scale enterprises with a creative tension that they could not do on their own.

My colleague Joe Durrett has worked all sides of matrix organizations in marketing at Procter & Gamble, sales and general management at Kraft General Foods and CEO of Information Resources, Broderbund Software and Advo. He has seen matrices at their best and at their worst and offered his perspective for this article along with his partners John Lawler and Linda Hlavac. The 12 ways to make matrix organizations more effective were built on their ideas.

Overall leadership is key. As Joe put it,

All of the RACI charts in the world are dust in the wind compared to how the top management acts, measures, and rewards. Functional experts will always retain some allegiance to their specialty (sales, distribution, finance, etc,) because that is their anchor as well as their ladder. Operators will always want freedom to “do it their way.”  Top management should see these personalities and recognize the value of some tension.

The best of those leaders engender shared targets and clear accountabilities, live team interactions and team-building behaviors:

Shared Targets And Clear Accountabilities

1. Make sure everyone understands the reasons for and benefits of the matrix model for them— typically, better leverage of talent, resources and information to make better decisions and drive better results.

2. Key leaders should be held accountable for their individual groups’ targets and for the overall organization’s targets. Both/and not either/or.

3. Balance the emphasis on informality/team/encouragement with religious publication and review of all results.

4. Ensure clarity on how the RACI is intended to work, then role-play real decisions and scenarios to help leaders understand how to lead successfully in the matrix whether they are the approving authority, accountable for driving decisions and results, responsible for the work, consulted or informed.

Live Team Interactions

5. Full leadership live team meetings monthly.

6. Informal but deliberate sessions every three to four months between the CEO and staff and operating leaders.

7. Encourage all leaders and teams to spend at least one day every six months with their counterparts.

8. Cross-matrix celebrations in the same room as frequently as warranted.

Team-Building Behaviors

9. Build fast, seamless teamwork with frequent one-on-one phone contacts and avoiding stiff written communication.

10. Accept that political personalities will try to leverage situations. Spot them and stop them right away.

11. Recognize the overall team is really a collection of teams (functional, geographic, etc.) with unique dynamics, communication norms and personalities. Accept differences and collaborate to deliver TEAM Results.

12. Define, expect, and intentionally coach behaviors needed to succeed in the matrix, including Conflict Management, Influence and Empathy.  Invest time in reflective learning and build self-awareness.