News & Insight
August 2012

Beyond the Matrix: Building Capacity to Collaborate

In order to fully realize the advantages of a matrixed organization, people need to develop their capacity to collaborate by learning to think and interact differently with one another.

Geri Wells

Contemporary organizations are challenged to operate in an extremely competitive environment that is getting increasingly complex and dynamic. To improve response-ability leaders are re-considering their organization’s structure.

Your organization may be among those transforming from conventional hierarchical models in favor of a matrix structure: a multi-dimensional form that emphasizes flexibility and adaptability over efficiency and control, and replaces hierarchy with the promise of vertical and horizontal integration. While adopting the matrix structure may be prudent, focusing on structure alone is not enough.

Focus on Coordination and Relationships

Traditional (hierarchical) structures focus on the work and are therefore organized by functional divisions that remain static. They control for efficiency by concentrating decision authority, replicating skills and processes across divisions, and standardizing procedures.

By contrast, modern (multi-dimensional) firms focus on coordination and relationships and are designed to create synergy among several divisions such as functions, projects, products, and geography, and they may be temporary or more permanent. The classic matrix design is distinguished by having both vertical and horizontal axes, where responsibility is shared for both functional and project goals, requiring dual reporting. More permanent matrix structures blend technical or functional goals with more stable product lines or processes rather than less stable projects. In international environments we typically see a three dimensional matrix, intersecting along product/market, function, and country lines.

Opportunity for Responsiveness and Creativity

Hierarchical structures are shown to stifle human creativity and motivation and tend to be more insular and less sensitive to external influences, such as shifting markets or consumer needs. Matrix structures promise to achieve a higher degree of readiness and market adaptation because they tend to be more responsive and creative. The primary advantage of the matrix environment is that it positions people in direct contact with each other and their environment where in real time they are able to ‘sense and make sense’ of their experience together and rapidly respond. Other advantages may include:

  • A multitude of information channels enable companies to capture and assimilate external complexity
  • Overlapping responsibilities dismantle the silos for greater flexibility in response to change
  • Cross division responsibilities present the opportunity to better develop and leverage talent
  • Coordination across multiple dimensions broadens and balances input into decision-making
  • Co-leadership enables the development of integrated solutions
  • Dual reporting contributes to sharing learning and best practices

In spite of such benefits, companies evolving to a matrix environment struggle with many of the same challenges associated with the distribution of personnel, work, decisions, information and resources. Such challenges include:

  • Conflicts regarding power and control over shared personnel and resources
  • Confusion regarding priorities in executing work where one goal may be sub-optimized for another
  • Unclear accountability and decision-criteria for cross-divisional work outcomes
  • Diffused roles and responsibilities with unclear strategic alignment
  • Information overload and logjams where multiple channels of data intersect
  • Newly captured knowledge that is never translated to organizational learning
  • Ambivalence regarding the appropriate balance of variability and standardization
  • Misunderstood communications that arise across time, distance, language, and cultural differences

Without clarity and competence in how people interact with each other across teams and divisions, time is lost, mistakes are made, resources are diverted to resolving conflict, trust erodes, resentment builds, shame dis-empowers, barriers to success de-motivate, and clients go elsewhere.

A Platform for Collaboration

These challenges remind us that any new structure, regardless of its wisdom, does not automatically foster new thinking or new habits. The matrix structure simply provides a platform of opportunity to improve responsiveness by positioning people closer to one another and to their environment. However, positioning people optimally is simply not enough. To realize the promise of greater responsiveness and creativity, they must also have the capability to think and interact differently with one other and with their complex environment in order to overcome habits of insularity and isolation. They must be able to:

  • Navigate together across the multiple time and space dimensions of the network
  • Assimilate their experience together
  • Communicate effectively together across boundaries
  • Make sense of the information together that is freely flowing
  • Convert information to meaningful knowledge and shared learning
  • Develop and communicate a common vision together
  • Build mutual relationships of trust and confidence necessary to achieve shared goals

In other words, these matrix mates must have the capacity to lead, learn and create collaboratively.

Building Capability to Collaborate

It is not surprising then that the promise of the matrix structure is not being realized by so many well-intentioned organizations. Rather than a decision about where we place individuals in relation to one another on an organization chart, how we organize ourselves is a decision about how we choose to relate with one another in practice. We have learned from the life sciences that the ability of all living systems to adapt is a function of how they organize (relate), govern (lead), and regulate (learn). Since organizing as a matrix creates the opportunity for shared leadership and shared learning for rapid response, it is important to attend not only to the organization’s anatomy (structure) and physiology (systems), but also to the psychology (thinking) and sociology (interactions). In other words, we must do more than restructure; we must support people to reframe their thinking and to relate in ways that build collaborative relationships. Once developed, these relationships will sustain the matrix environment and its supporting systems.

Collaborative Thinking Requires a Relational Frame of Reference
Fundamentally, supporting collaboration requires a significant shift in thinking. We must be prepared to adopt a relational frame of reference in which we operate from our interdependency with one another and with our work environment rather than from an assumption of independence or dependence. Our focus is on our individual relationship to the larger corporate community and the broader field in which we operate. Encouraging this evolution in thinking involves examining our mindsets for what may inhibit us from moving forward together: noble certainties, ideological doctrines, core value differences, uncompromising beliefs, unquestioned or obsolete assumptions, habits of mind such as attitudes and self-talk.

Collaborative Leadership Context: A clear and consistent corporate vision and strategy is required for coherency and cohesiveness across distributed work groups. Individuals must be able to relate their roles and responsibilities to the broader corporate agenda, align their inspiration and aspirations in service to corporate commitments, and make operational decisions consistent with a clear strategy. Co-opting agendas relies upon the co-creation of a shared vision and strategy that benefits from multiple perspectives and shared ownership. A collaborative leader assumes, “I am smart and may be smarter than him/her, but not as smart as everybody.”

Collaborative Interaction Requires Relational Empathy
Collaboration also requires the ability to carry mutual responsibility for the work that is co-created. At the heart of collaboration then is the caring capacity that enables this carrying capacity. Relational responsibility relies upon a developed capacity for empathy toward others. Empathy is not about doing something differently; it is about being different in relation to another. Empathy begins with a shift in orientation from “what do I think, feel, believe, and know” to “what can I discover and learn from the way others think, feel, believe, and know.” Empathy is developed through practice with skills of constructive conversations. Dialogue and the art of storytelling have largely been replaced by new communication technologies. While virtual meetings, collaborative software, and integrated platforms enable us to connect more efficiently with one another, these tools cannot provide the understanding and trust that builds relationships.

Collaborative Learning Context: In the new economy, it has been recognized that learning agility, not performance excellence, is the core competency required to compete; and the ability to innovate is what differentiates a thriving business from its surviving competitors. While systems and processes are often used to synchronize and unify the disparate parts of any organization, those originating under a hierarchical structure that focus on individual performance (e.g. reward systems) rather than collaboration often complicate the transition to a matrix environment where interactive learning is a key competency. We need to better prepare workers for the collaborative roles they play across the ‘white spaces’ of the organization where they are purposefully positioned to interact, learn and respond - roles such as sensors, translators, networkers, integrators, negotiators, adaptors, pollinators, cultivators, harvesters, bridge builders, mentors, coaches, and trailblazers. Such preparation may also include skill-building in how to conduct learning conversations where empathy supports the openness and vulnerability required for feedback, learning and experimentation. Workers also need the support of cultural conditions that encourage the risk, dissent, and mistakes that provide the best opportunities for learning and to stop discouraging them with shame and blame. Similarly, standard operating procedures that exert too much control over variability stifle creativity. Instead, an appropriate balance is needed that encourages the generation of ideas and demonstrates support to entertain the novel, the unconventional, the radical ideas that are the creative seeds of innovation.


The most responsive companies organize in ways that support individuals and groups to work effectively together while continuously developing their relational capabilities to respond to each other and to their environment. Relational capabilities are best learned experientially through individual and team coaching in the context of real-time work experiences that provide significant opportunity for collaboration.

Geri Wells, MPA has been a member of WJM’s Faculty since 1998 and has 25+ years experience as a capacity development consultant. Certified in Organization and System Development, Geri specializes in helping clients develop collaborative leaders, resilient organizations, and sustainable communities.

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