energizing breakthrough performance

Matrix Teams: Getting Past the Chanting Stage

Author: ; Published: Nov 19, 2009; Category: Cross-Functional Teams, Matrix Management; Tags: , , ; No Comments»


Matrix teams can be especially useful as part of a renewal initiative. For a couple of decades, the mantra in organizations has been “we need to break down the silos,” but such renewal initiatives too rarely get past the chanting stage. Matrix teams are cross-functional teams which pursue shared objectives using shared resources. Such teams break down the silos by placing staff drawn from different disciplines shoulder-to-shoulder, either physically and/or virtually, with one another to pursue a common objective.

A constant theme throughout my book, Matrix Management Success: Method Not Magic, is that today’s organizational problems are complex and daunting. The problems are multidisciplinary in nature and multidisciplinary approaches are essential to meeting the challenge—not just at the top of the organization, but also at the middle and at the front-line level.

We would still be waiting for many of the beneficial drugs that make life better today were it not for the use of multi-disciplinary drug development teams by global pharmaceutical companies Beyond the pharmaceutical companies, many other household-name organizations use matrix teams to achieve important benefits, including companies such as ExxonMobil, Boeing, and Parsons Engineering.

Public sector organizations are also using matrix teams to great advantage, including the US Navy Bureau of Medicine, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Food and Drug Administration Center for Radiological Devices, and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, to name a few. There are some emerging examples of both private and public sector organizations which are linking their matrix teams to the matrix teams of other strategic partners; this is the next frontier in creating breakthrough global networks of organizations that don’t just cooperate on paper, but which also collaborate day-to-day at the working level to get work done. It’s another way to make renewal a viral phenomenon.

Many traditional, vertical hierarchies are simply out of breath as they grapple with multidisciplinary challenges. Vertical organizations are structured perfectly to solve one-dimensional problems but the bad news is that virtually all of the one-dimensional problems in the modern world have already been solved! Squeezing traditional hierarchies harder is not the pathway to progress; you may increase your engine speed RPM, with accompanying employee fatigue and burnout, but the squeeze doesn’t increase your ground speed, to use an automotive analogy. Such approaches lead to head scratching: “How can our employees work so hard and such long days and make so little progress?”

It’s time for organizational structures to catch up to reality. Catching up to reality is one way to describe necessary renewal. Unleashing the power of the horizontal organization using cross-functional matrix teams is a proven way to renew your organization by releasing talent to conquer complexity, increasing speed and agility while ensuring the highest-and-best use of all of your assets.

Cross-functional teams have been around for more than sixty years, but recent improvements in communications and information technology along with increases in employee education and sophistication levels have fueled its wider use. It takes care and due diligence to make them work, but when they work well they are powerhouses of innovation and productivity and a vital pathway to organizational renewal.