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How To Lead Within A Matrix Organization?

Three tactics to help you lead within a functionally organized company


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Calvin Bushor

a year ago | 7 min read

While mentoring a new software engineering leader, they asked me this question, “How do you lead people who work on different projects?” They expanded the question by asking, “How do I know if they are doing a good job if I don’t have visibility into their work?”

Digging in a bit more with some probing questions, I uncovered the root of their problem, how do they lead a team more effectively within a Matrix Organization?

A leader will often experience two riddles in their leadership journey when it relates to organizational design. The first riddle is the one this leader is experiencing: how do they do a good job leading people who focus on multiple areas, a matrix-style organization.

The second riddle is how do you lead a cross-functional team when you may have little to no experience in some of the team’s role? A leader will more than likely experience both of these riddles in their career, and it’s the first we’re focused on today, how to lead more effectively in a matrix-style Organization.

First, let’s define a Matrix Organization.

What is a Matrix Organization?

Note, this is an oversimplification with many assumptions, and its intent is for illustration purposes.

Let’s define a Matrix Organization as a company with team members who report to a functional team but spend most of their time working with a cross-functional group, not necessarily their reporting org. Here’s an illustration of what that might look like.

An  illustrated example of a functional, matrix-style organization. Team  members work on different products and projects but report to the same  leader.
An illustrated example of a functional, matrix-style organization. Team members work on different products and projects but report to the same leader.

Let’s look at Erica, the Team Leader of Web Software Engineering. Amy, Brad, and Kelly all report to Erica and are a part of this team focused on building their products’ front-ends. Amy spends most of her time working on the external web product. Brad spends most of his time focused on the mobile app, and Kelly spends most of her time focused on the internal team member experience.

The other leaders, Norma and Russel, lead their teams in the same way, matrixed into the products they support. All three leaders have the same riddle. How do they lead their team effectively when they can’t be in three places at once?

Should the teams be “matrixed” in the first place?

If you are thinking to yourself, don’t do this in the first place, create a cross-functional organization instead, I don’t disagree, but that’s not the goal of this article. We are not here to debate what the correct model is for a team and organization. Companies have valid reasons to implement Matrix Organizations, cross-functional organizations, or hybrid models.

Here’s a thoughtful post outlining these organizational design problems by

Nick Tune focused on the riddle of organizing products vs capabilities.

What are some riddles Matrix-Leaders might encounter?

Whether it’s Erica, Norma, Russel, or someone else like the team leader I’m mentoring, being a leader of a matrix-led team comes with some complexities.

These are some of the questions this new team leader asked me because they were unsure how to lead their team members when they are not directly involved in their work.

  1. How do you stay close enough to their work to know where they can improve or their strengths?
  2. How do you grow and develop someone when you are not close to their work?
  3. What does a leader do if they are not involved in distributing the work to team members?
  4. How do you create a team environment where the team spends most of their time with their product group.

Rather than answer each question directly, three practices can help leaders in a Matrix Organization handle these riddles.

First, a leader in a Matrix Organization should still spend time where their team is.

Meaning, we should invest time attending the meetings our team members attend. An example I used with this mentee is attending team ceremonies their team members attend.

Examples might be stand-ups, retros, and show and tells. This practice will help the leader observe their team in-action and see how they interact with their cross-functional group.

As a leader, you’ll get a sense of what your team member experiences, and you’ll be able to connect more strongly with them. The side-effect of this practice is that you are signing up for a lot more meetings. I’m not suggesting we attend all of their meetings, but zero shouldn’t be an option, either.

Second, we need multiple forms of information flowing to us.

The first form of information comes from one on ones with our team members. Regular time with them becomes more critical because we spend less time with them in execution. Another form of feedback-flow you can create is through peer or partner feedback.

A leader can solicit this feedback in many ways. It can come in the form of casual conversation where you ask someone in the cross-functional group how a particular team member is doing. It can be formalized by using a performance feedback survey. You might also have tools that can give you insights into activity, behavior, and communication.

A simple example is a team chat room. A matrix-org leader might want to subscribe to the channels their team is active in to observe and see if there are ways they can help the team member.

A Software Engineering Leader might use GitHub activity to help them gain knowledge through a tool the team uses. The goal is to have multiple streams of information flowing so a leader can develop a holistic view when they are not in the weeds with a team member’s execution.

The third practice is easier said than done, and that’s to create a team-led community of practice with high peer-to-peer accountability.

Now, this is an objective any team would benefit from, not just Matrix Organizations. When we create teams that invest in each other and push one another through peer-accountability, the need for us to be closer reduces because the team is leading itself. We shift our focus from leading individuals to creating an environment that leads itself.

Unfortunately, there is no straight line to build a high-accountability, self-led team, but here are some ingredients that can help. To make a self-led team, we need people on the team who care a lot, are capable, and influence others.

These might be our Seniors on our team or people who have the “it factor,” but the common thread is that they can get stuff done, and they carry a lot of respect within the team.

The next thing we need for a self-led team is that the team members need to own as much of their destiny as possible this way, they are accountable for their decisions. Meaning, as the leader, we should give up control. The last ingredient is that we shift ourselves into a coaching position.

We coach the influencers to influence more effectively, and we help the team own its new-earned powers of decision making and accountability. We spend our time bringing the team together to focus on where we cross-over, which is usually our team member’s expectations or the frameworks our teams work within.

As leaders of a matrix-team, our conversations shift to the ecosystem instead of the business’s problems that our team members are focused on solving.

Should Functional Matrix-Leaders play a role in work management?

Let’s quickly define work management. By work management, I mean that a leader in this type of organization, a matrix-style company, could play a role in distributing work to their functional team.

It’s up to them to decide who gets what task, story, feature, etc. So, should they? Here’s everyone’s favorite answer; it depends. Commonly, a leader in this position will start as a work-router and help identify the right person to do the work from their functional team.

This might solve the riddle of knowing what team members are focused on. Still, it reduces the possibility of achieving a high accountability, self-led team, because it centralizes control to one person.

It’s not bad persé, it has consequences, and that’s okay. It’s more critical a leader understand the type of system they are leading within and stay aware of the team’s health through the behaviors and tonality. When we find ourselves stuck using the same methods, we get into trouble because we cannot get out of our way.

Maybe we should have a functional leader manage the work intake, but we should continuously question this as we grow and evolve the organization.

Start leading more effectively in a matrix-style organization!

Leadership is challenging regardless of the system’s design. Different models cause different problems to solve. If you find yourself leading a team within a matrix-style company, you’ll run into many of the riddles outlined above.

By creating a system that gives you multiple streams of information, being intentional with your time s you go where your team is, and growing your team to be as self-led as possible, matrix-style leadership becomes a little more doable.

If you have any questions or suggestions on how to lead within a matrix-style organization, share a comment below. Thanks for reading.

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Created by

Calvin Bushor

Vice President, Software Engineering - Rocket Homes (RKT NYSE)

Technologist, leader, writer, and I created BuildBetterTeams.org to help new tech leaders be better leaders and build awesome dev teams! #LeadershipLife


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