Winning Leadership and Collaboration in a Matrixed World

I have so many demands on my time. I could literally spend every moment of my work week in a meeting if I chose to. Of course, I’d get much less done.

I work with an executive whose organization was swallowed up about a year ago by a very large technology company. At first the transition from start-up to mega-corporation was challenging. But after some time studying the vast corporate structure, he now has some understanding of how the larger organization works and is learning how best to contribute to its success.

When I asked my client what had changed for him to clarify things, he offered this: “There’s a huge expectation in this organization to collaborate with other departments and teams beyond our little group. When I figured out which groups to participate in and which meetings were most critical, I began to navigate much better and was able to make a more focused effort with bigger results.”

My client isn’t alone in the need to learn how to best lead in matrixed corporate settings. Matrixed organizations, where we might be leading or serving in different groups or different projects from month to month, are nothing new. But the need has certainly intensified over the past decade and the management skills needed for success are quite different than in a traditional hierarchical situation.

Success in the collaborator arena can have a big impact. As a recent study led by Ning Li of the University of Iowa shows, one individual who frequently contributes beyond the scope of his or her role—can have a bigger positive impact on team performance more than all the other team members combined. In fact, Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant report in Harvard Business Review that “up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.”

So successful collaboration in a matrixed company can deliver big results. But, as many stretched-to-the-limit managers know, this can be a corporate minefield. You find yourself juggling between competing requests for your time and expertise from other groups, while also trying to meet your team’s goals. Many of my coaching clients report that time management is their number one challenge.

Let’s look at some ways you can contribute at a high level while avoiding being sucked into the vortex.

1. Ask the right questions at the beginning

You want to be helpful and cooperative and accessible and visible. But if task forces and project meetings totally consume your time, you cannot possibly contribute your best. You’ll want to save your energy and expertise for those projects in which you have a comparative advantage— that is, those cases where you are uniquely qualified to deliver a contribution. The folks who optimize their time ask some questions before agreeing to participate:

  • Am I the best person for this initiative? Do I have time and expertise to be able to contribute at a high level? Could someone from my team or from another department do as well?
  • Is the collaborative/group approach the best approach for this particular project? What if, instead of group collaboration on every step, an individual or small group prepared a recommendation and then seeks the group’s input?
  • How does this project support my team’s goals and the overall goals of the organization? Does this project push us forward on our priorities or serve as a distraction?
  • Can this effort be made at a lower level? These collaborative projects often serve as essential training and exposure for those at a lower level in the organization. Learn to trust the strengths of your team by giving them some increased responsibility.

2. Be willing (and eager) to give a “Positive No.”

Sometimes the best response is to decline the opportunity. You can do this in a positive way, without appearing uncooperative. First, be responsive- answer the emails, even if you know it won’t be something in which you will participate; this is only courtesy and provides the recipient some certainty that you’ve received and read the message- isn’t this how you’d expect to be treated? Next, Caroline Webb describes the ‘positive no’ in which you acknowledge the value of the project which still declining and offer up some help: “Thanks for asking me to be part of this. I can certainly see how the work is going to positively impact Company X’s operations. Unfortunately, due to other company commitments and priorities, I won’t be able to participate. But here are three suggestions for people you might want to talk with whom have appropriate expertise…”

3. Document the goals and parameters of the collaboration.

So many times, meetings take place without a clear purpose or outcome. Scope Creep on a collaborative project is a real and present danger. Come together on the what you are trying to achieve (as well as the limits to what you are trying to do), write it down, and then check in frequently on how the group is performing against the goals. You will stay more focused and avoid use the time more wisely.

4. Be quick to share infinite resources and slow to share the finite resources.

Infinite resources are those which people can share without impacting your time and effort. This includes things like Wikis and libraries and networks. Be open to sharing access to this type of asset. But be wary of sharing finite resources (your time and energy, the time and energy of your team) if the project isn’t clearly in support of your goals and/or those of your organization.

5. Recognize the benefits of preparation.

Cross-functional collaboration takes effort; it’s often less clear about ownership and responsibility. But it also offers tremendous opportunity to build your reputation or “personal brand” across the organization. The person who can be counted on to prepare for meetings, to fulfill commitments and focus on relationships and results will get more opportunities and become known as a “go to” person. This can unlock opportunity for growth, learning and responsibility.

6. Leverage technology and resources to make the most of your time together.

Collaboration tools like Slack and Chatter can boost both the speed and quality of interaction. Also, think about going old-school and be willing to share space. Researchers continue to tell us that being in the same physical space can enhance the development of relationships by exposing us to non-verbal cues and understanding the day-to-day challenges we all face.

7. Finally, recognize and reward great collaboration.

A successful cross-team collaboration is unique, valuable, and worth celebrating. Call it out when a team comes together to do something amazing. And capture lessons learned from the experience so the success can be replicated.

Strong collaboration can pay big dividends but doing it right is hard work. Success comes from a thoughtful approach and being aware of the resources which are being allocated. Like any worthwhile initiative, we will work best together when everyone clearly understands the what success looks like and the rules under which we’re operating.