“Trust” in the Matrix

Matrixed organizations continue to be a significant organizational structure for businesses today. They are designed to enable rapid adaptation to the manifold issues currently existing in the business environment. The idea is that without the fixed hierarchical organizational structures there will be less corporate inertia / momentum and greater receptivity to change when it is needed. In a matrixed organization groups work together in a less hierarchical structure where each group focuses on their area of functional excellence and then combine it with the other groups to create the best solution for the business. One of the key aspects of the matrix structure is that each group must trust the other groups to be focused on the business’ best interest and not each individual group’s best interest.

While matrixed organizations have many positive attributes I have found that “trust” while needed for optimal performance is a difficult commodity to maintain.

People invariably like to feel that they are getting the full set of inputs when they are asked to participate in a matrixed organization project. Operations want to make sure that they are getting the full customer story from sales. Sales want to make sure that delivery is not padding the costs, and so on. The result is each group in the matrixed organization starts to create their own sub-group that will be responsible for making sure the other groups are in fact doing their jobs. This is both expensive and inefficient.

Because there is no clearly defined Responsibility – Authority relationship structure in a matrixed organization, all aspects of the organization will have a tendency to evolve to the position that they have the responsibility to oversee and assure that the other departments are performing their tasks appropriately. They don’t trust the rest of the organization. This can occur because they are attributing their own untrustworthy characteristics to other groups, or they have in fact observed the improper behaviors, or any number of other reasons.

Regardless of what has caused it, when the matrixed organization loses trust between its component organizations, progress slows down.

Agreements are slower to be reached because each group must now verify the work of the others. Multiple reviews must now be held as each group vets the others work. The situation gives rise to new centralized functions whose only responsibility is to gather information and provide reports on the work and progress of the component groups. More and more time ends up being spent reporting and defending the work that has been done, and less and less time gets spent doing new work.

As difficult as it may be to do in this situation, members of matrixed organizations need to believe in the competency and appropriate business behaviors of their co-workers, just as they should demand that their co-workers should believe and trust in their competencies and behaviors. This will mean that everyone must fight the urge to continually revisit and review the contributions of the component groups. It also means that when multiple requests come in for multiple reviews, they will need to be refused.

I am not saying that all input should be accepted at face value. Henry Kissinger coined the great phrase “Trust but Ratify”, and that should be the case here. However, once a review has been held, it will be time to move on. Progress is not made in or during reviews. Progress is made outside of reviews.

In order to make progress, get the business moving faster, and achieve the desired goals, all members of the matrixed organization need to spend a little more time trusting each other to do their job and a lot less time questioning, reviewing, and verifying that each other are in fact doing their job.


We are all knowledge workers. That means that we make our living and provide our value-add to our businesses based on how well we process the information we receive and what intellectual output we provide. The long and the short of it is that we think about the issues that are presented to us, and we create solutions for them.

As a kid I was pretty creative with the ideas that I could come up with. This caused my parents some significant heartburn on more than one occasion. I would like to think that I have not entirely lost that creativity but rather that I have learned to channel it a little better. I think in today’s business environment that we need to continue to try and create new solutions to both the new and the old issues that we face. We cannot continue to do things the same way we have been doing them and expect the situation to improve.

Unfortunately the current business environment has itself created an aversion to the risk associated with solution creation.

Creativity and new ideas require that we endure some amount of risk. The problem here is that the perceived up-side reward for risking and creating a new solution seems to be far outweighed by the down-side penalties that would occur for the solution being unsuccessful. It seems our current business incentive set is much more to try and avoid failure as opposed to that of creating success.

The result again seems to be a decrease in the number of people either creating or willing to create new solutions, and an increase in the number of people who while not willing to create, are willing to review and edit anybody else’s solution.

Editors can and do serve an important role in the solution process. They invariably look for the holes in the solution, or for scenarios that might not have been considered or addressed. The result of their involvement can be a stronger overall final solution product.

But they are not creators.

The editor doesn’t write the Pulitzer Prize winning book, or direct the Oscar award winning movie. They may have helped make it better, but they didn’t create it. It was someone else’s idea and vision. It was created and then presented to the editor to review. They had no real ownership, or risk, associated with the final product. Their name did not appear on the book cover, or in the opening credits of the movie.

The same goes in business. Organizations today seem to have significant numbers of people who are willing to review and edit any new idea that comes along. For the most part they are willing to tell you what is lacking in the idea, and the many reasons why they think it won’t work.

When I have encountered this sort of behavior I have found that there is usually some kernel of truth in the critiques that I have received. I try to look for it and see if I can use it to make my ideas and solutions stronger. I have also found that I have needed to grow a thick skin when dealing with their criticisms. I am still working on that.

My point here is two-fold. The first is that we need to try to get back to our creative roots in looking at how we are dealing with today’s issues in business. We know what the existing solution provides, and if we want to do better, that means we must do something else.

The second point is that the next time someone provides you with one of their ideas or solutions do not become an editor. There are already enough editors around. Look for the value of the idea and try to work from the point of view of what is right with the solution as opposed to what is wrong with it. What can you add to the solution as a co-creator as opposed to identifying the holes in it as an editor.

Creativity in dealing with the many issues that business is facing seems to be in short supply. If you can, look for ways to create new solutions. If you are presented with the opportunity to review and edit someone else’s ideas and solutions, fight the urge to critique and get involved in the proposed solutions creation process.

There is an old saying: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” I think in business today a more accurate rendition of this phrase is: “If you are not part of the solution, you are probably part of the editorial staff.”


I think it is a pretty obvious fact that our preconceptions give rise to “blind spots” in the way we look at and manage our businesses. If we believe that we are looking for one type of solution to a problem, it makes it more difficult for us to recognize new or different potential solutions to the same problem. Since we already “know” what the solution is going to be, we have a tendency to discount or disbelieve any facts that may be contrary to our chosen direction and solution.

Our disbelief in our fallibility slows us down. It allows us to cling to outdated or outmoded programs and projects long after their usefulness is gone. It causes us to ignore facts and input that need to be recognized and acted upon quickly. Since we already know what we are looking for and where to find it, we won’t look elsewhere, because the answer can’t be there.

The things we don’t believe are as important to the way we work and run our businesses as the things we do believe in.

I don’t want confuse skepticism with disbelief. A skeptic wants the data verified and looks for corroborating evidence and information before accepting a change to a situation. A disbeliever refuses to accept that the data indicates that a change or shift has occurred that requires a modification to an existing practice. I think a healthy dose of skepticism is a requirement for a good manager. An unwillingness to believe the facts or the analysis they engender when they do not align with what we want or expect can kill a business or opportunity quickly in today’s environment.

There is a fine line between caution and disbelief. When does the data indicate a change or a trend as opposed to an anomaly? If you move too quickly you can move away from current opportunities and practices before their value is fully recognized. This can subject your team and business to what amounts to a whipsawing of changes and reduce both effectiveness and profitability. If you move too slowly you run the risk of staying with a declining situation and then having to chase after the new market imperative.

Believing in one solution set does not mean we must disbelieve in all other solution sets. We need to learn that accepting that other solutions may exist to the identified issue. They may not be better than the solution set that has been chosen. On the other hand, then may in fact be better. The idea is not to reject them out of hand.

The business case for every solution needs to be continuously reviewed to make sure that it remains the best solution as time passes and new information is gathered. The data is always the data. It is what you do with the data that demonstrates business acuity. If the data indicates that a change is needed, skepticism and caution may be called for, but disbelief in that data can put the business in jeopardy.

Remember, it was not too long ago that the earth was believed to be the center of the universe. At one time the earth was also believed to be flat. New information and new technologies have continued to change our beliefs. It has also changed what we disbelieve.

Report by Exception


Have you ever attended an operations review or a monthly review meeting and at the end of it wondered why you were there? As competition continues to grow fiercer, and we are asked to provide more capabilities with fewer resources, we still seem to find the time for review meetings. Whether we are calling the review, or just attending the review we need to be much more aware of one of our most precious business resources, our time.

Limitations to our travel budgets as a result of increased cost consciousness have reduced the number of face to face reviews. In response to this we have seen the significant growth in the number of conference calls with associated NetMeeting or LiveMeeting visual or chart content. The value of the review can still be there, but the cost has been reduced.

As we look at other ways to continue to drive the cost out of the business and efficiency into it, we should start looking at both the content and the needs associated with the review itself.

If the business is on track and performance is within acceptable control boundaries, is a review even necessary? If only part of the business is off plan, does the entire business need to present? Are there other scheduled shorter interval reports that are in place designed to track performance that can be used?

The numbers of people and the associated man-hours spent at reviews are significant, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. The number people and associated man-hours spent preparing for and generating the information and presentations associated with the reviews are enormous.

We need to be rigorous in asking ourselves if each activity we are performing is providing value to the business. If our businesses are on plan, will standard interval activity and financial reports be sufficient? I would think they should be. How much time can be saved and returned to the actual running of the business if just one operations review can be avoided in a business year?

Please do not misunderstand me. I believe in the value of reviews, when they are called for, and have a defined and focused objective. We need to evolve the standard general review away from the usual progress report to management for the entire business, and transform it into a session designed to generate solutions to performance issues for those aspects of the business that are in fact off plan.

Controls and reports within the business should enable issues with performance, or deviations from the plan to be made visible before the review. The purpose of the review then changes from everyone reporting their issues, or lack of issues to reporting on the solution to the issue. Those aspects of the business that are not experiencing issues should not then be required to expend the resources on the creation of review materials. It becomes exception reporting instead of general reporting.

The result should be a shorter meeting with fewer presentations, and a greater focus on the exceptions to expected performance and the solutions to issues instead of the reporting of them. The time and effort that usually is expended on the preparation for the review can be reduced and the time returned to the business for greater value activities.


I think we
have all had the opportunity to relax and talk with our coworkers around the
office. What is interesting is that invariably these impromptu discussions have
a tendency to become complaining sessions regarding the then current set of
ills befalling the company. I remember back to one of these sessions some time
ago where I was doing some of the complaining. What happened as a result of
that “discussion” still affects the way I work today.

complaining about a specific problem and my proposed specific solution to it,
one of the people in the group said to me:

“If you have
such a good solution, why don’t you take the initiative and do something about

I was at a
relatively early stage in my career. I thought their suggestion had merit. I
went ahead and took the risk and proposed an action. I put
together an overview of the issue, what my proposal to address the issue was,
and what the business case and benefit to the company would be. I took it up my
management chain.

I didn’t
think too much more about it until a couple of weeks later when I was asked to
come into a meeting and explain my approach to the issue and why I thought it
would work. I was actually called into a senior management staff meeting.

The toughest
question I had to answer was why I was making a suggestion about an issue that
was outside of my area of responsibility. I responded by saying that I thought
I had a workable answer to the problem. The result of the meeting was that I
was given the challenge of implementing the solution I proposed.

Not every
suggestion that I have made since has been as well received, however several of
them have been. The point is that it pays to take the initiative. Putting a
considered solution proposal together to address an issue is always in order.
We have all learned that no one has the market cornered on good ideas. As I
have moved on in management I have kept the lesson I learned in mind and still
try to practice it.

If you see a
problem and you think you have a good solution to it, go ahead and propose the
solution. Don’t just complain. Don’t say it isn’t your job or it’s not your
responsibility. Understand that it’s okay if you are told “no”, and your
proposal is not acted upon. Taking the initiative on the solving of all types
of problems seems to be the space that we all need to get back into.

The next time you find yourself discussing the problems facing your
company today, remember to take the initiative and step up and propose a
solution. Good suggestions on how to address issues are always appreciated and
they can help establish your ability to help solve some of the issues facing
business today.