Many of today’s organizations have adapted to the rapidly shifting demands of the modern business environment by doing away with hierarchical structures in favor of flatter, more adaptable structures. Although matrix organizations are certainly not a new concept, they are becoming more popular, especially for large companies looking for ways to leverage the diverse resources and expertise available.

What is a Matrix Organization?

A matrix organization differs from more traditional, hierarchical management structures. Rather than taking a “top-down” approach, matrix organizations are flatter and feature multiple, overlapping reporting relationships. The actual structure of reporting authority resembles a grid rather than a ladder, which is where the approach gets its name. Information and decisions flow horizontally rather than vertically, which makes matrix organizations much more flexible and adaptable when it comes to dealing with complex challenges.

Matrix-based teams are comprised of individuals with differing operational perspectives who also have different reporting relationships. There may be a specific project manager for a team even if members still report to other functional managers. This structure allows information and resources to move across functions quickly, which helps organizations to respond to shifting circumstances and collaborate more effectively.

Cross-Functional Communication Challenges

While there are many advantages to a matrix organization, they are heavily reliant upon good communication. Poor or ineffective cross-functional communication and cross-functional team leadership can quickly undermine productivity and create a number of problems for people working in a matrix environment. Some of these problems include:

Lack of Clarity

Since team members report to multiple managers and receive information from a variety of sources, so it can be very easy to lose track of what’s happening and who needs to be informed about what. When it comes time to make decisions or take action, there may be some uncertainty about who has the authority to do so. Without clearly defined structures and processes in place, matrix organizations will struggle with cross-functional team leadership.

Lack of Trust

With so many reporting relationships criss-crossing matrix organizations, some amount of conflict is inevitable. Whether it’s a dispute over resource allocation or priorities, it can be tempting to withhold information in order to benefit one department over another or avoid taking accountability for a problem. As trust breaks down, secrecy becomes more pronounced and further undermines productivity.

Lack of Productivity

Matrix organizations can bring a lot of knowledge and expertise together, but without a system in place to manage all of it, they can quickly become chaotic and unwieldy. Having multiple functional managers involved in a project can make it harder to share information and allocate resources effectively if all of them insist on having a hand in decision-making. These delays have a way of compounding, leaving less time for people to complete important, interrelated tasks and undermining overall productivity.

How to Improve Cross-Functional Communication

Fortunately, these problems can be avoided by taking a few easy steps to improve cross-functional communication. While it’s best to implement these measures from the beginning, they can also be used to get a dysfunctional matrix organization back on track.

1. Develop a Communication Plan

Communication in a matrix organization is too important to be left to chance. With so many communication tools available, it’s important to develop a clear plan that stipulates how information will be shared within a cross-functional team. This plan should clarify reporting relationships, establish who has final decision-making authority, and identify which tools will be used to share information. More importantly, it also needs to make clear how to prioritize communications. Not every team member needs to know everything about a project, so developing a plan that lays out who needs to be involved or informed under different situations can help to streamline the cross-functional communication process.

2. Establish Goals

One of the most effective methods for facilitating cross-functional collaboration and communication is developing a shared set of goals to keep a team focused. Without shared goals, team members often find themselves working at cross-purposes, with each person pursuing the goals associated with their respective functions. Creating shared goals also promotes a sense of community within a matrix team and can be the first step toward building a strong foundation of trust.

3. Build Trust

Without trust, effective communication and productive cross-functional collaboration are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Building trust takes time, effort, and dedication. Leaders and team members must demonstrate their credibility and reliability in order to convince others that they will be accountable, following through on their commitments and taking responsibility for their actions. When team members trust one another, they are more direct and honest when it comes to cross-functional communication and more likely to manage conflict productively.

With their ability to leverage resources and expertise from multiple functions, matrix organizations allow companies to innovate faster than ever and adapt quickly to the shifting circumstances of a disruptive marketplace. In order to maximize the potential of cross-functional teams, organizations must take a very deliberate approach when it comes to facilitating communication. Without the right systems and practices in place, the diverse nature of these teams has the potential to undermine their effectiveness.

Read more: A Cross Systems Planning Model