Navigating the Matrix Organization

More companies today are turning to cross-functional teams that reward collaborators over “lone wolves.” In these teams, employees often have dual reporting relationships rather than one manager. Responsibilities are also coordinated across departments rather than in a solely vertical arrangement. In addition, although cross functional work relationships have historically resembled a grid, today’s cross-functional organizations can be more complex, similar to a network or conglomerate.

Cross-functional teams have worked well for some of the world’s most successful companies, including IBM, Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, and Cisco. One key advantage is the opportunity to share resources and expertise more efficiently, which can save both time and money.

But this structure is not without its flaws.

The most common complaint among employees and leaders in a cross-functional team is that it lacks clarity. These teams naturally breed more uncertainty over who is in charge because there are multiple stakeholders and employees have dual reporting relationships, which can lead to conflicting interests and not enough action. Despite these difficulties, however, cross-functional teams can succeed as long as they address these uncertainties head-on.

Here are four strategies for reducing uncertainty in cross-functional teams.

Set Shared Goals

Working in cross-functional teams requires you to build partnerships with others outside your department or job function. Doing so is in your best interest and the interest of the entire organization in order to effectively share resources and knowledge. A cross-functional team cannot work if organizations continue to operate with a silo mentality, where each department is entirely focused on its own goals and evaluated accordingly. This slows down the entire process and keeps your team from achieving its overall objectives.

That’s why it’s so important to take the time to set shared goals with your team members before you set them for your own department. Once you’ve set your own department goals, it’s more difficult to adjust your focus to meet the needs of the matrix team. Setting shared goals and then establishing departmental goals based on those will ensure your teams are working toward a unified vision.

Clarify Roles and Responsibilities

Embrace the fact that a cross-functional team offers more opportunity for collaboration, but don’t allow too many decision makers to cloud your focus. Have a candid discussion to define the roles necessary to accomplish your goals and put it in writing. With each new project, determine who will have final decision authority. Who will initiate activity and coordinate the work? Whose input needs to be collected to ensure the decision maker has all the relevant information? Who needs to be informed after a decision has been made?

Taking the time to consider these questions and bring everyone into agreement will eliminate the frustration that can occur when someone is left out of an important decision. This will also ensure progress on the project does not lose momentum and that the best decisions are made for the right reasons and that people agree with and support those decisions.

Ensure Transparency

Your leaders or team members can only make informed decisions when they have all the resources and information they need. Establish a plan for how you will communicate with key stakeholders in the project. Does everyone have the appropriate contacts? What information will your team members need to meet key milestones within a project or process? Will interactions take place by email, over the phone, or in person? Who else needs to be included in the discussion? What are the expectations for responding and securing approvals so you’re able to meet the deadline?

By putting your plan in writing and distributing it to everyone involved, you’ll eliminate misunderstandings and excuses. Open and honest communication also makes it easier for information to flow to relevant team members and identify who needs to be included in discussions. When everyone has what they need to do their jobs, cross-functional teams can keep on task and avoid unnecessary conflict.

Measure Performance

At the end of the day, it’s all about results. Cross-functional teams need to know whether or not they’re delivering on the objectives they’ve set out to accomplish. Identifying and tracking key performance indicators (KPI) can help determine how much progress these teams are making and provide an objective mechanism for holding every member accountable for that results. Only by measuring performance can cross-functional teams know if they’ve taken effective steps to eliminate the uncertainty that often holds such teams back.

Internal assessments of the team can also be useful for gauging success. Employee surveys can give an organization a good snapshot of how people view a team’s culture and processes. If the team is delivering good business results in the short term but is developing a toxic culture with inefficient processes, these problem areas will need to be addressed if the team is going to continue to be successful in the long run and avoid high levels of dissatisfaction and turnover. External evaluations from customers and clients also provide a valuable data point for teams looking to improve performance. When these stakeholders are not satisfied, there is clearly a misalignment of goals and execution that must be remedied.

As cross-functional teams become more common across a wide range of industries, organizations need to make sure they’re taking proactive steps to eliminate the uncertainty that prevents these teams from reaching their full potential. By identifying ways to reduce confusion and misunderstandings while also establishing a standard to measure performance, organizations can build cross-functional teams that drive innovation through collaboration and leverage the knowledge, expertise, and skills that exist across departments.