Management in the Matrix: An Interview with Kevan Hall

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Thu, Apr 10 - 2:55 am EDT | 10 years ago by
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Are you in the matrix?

Kevan Hall and his company specialize  in how to lead and succeed in complex companies. Kevan also writes the blog Life in a Matrix. I encourage you to take your time to read this post about matrix management.

Kevan welcome to Slacker Manager, tell us how your focus in Speed Lead and Matrix Management came about?

 Kevan Hall

In my corporate career with Mars, I was trying to find ways to integrate our European organization and to grow into new regions such as Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. I looked for suppliers to help train me to deal with new cultures, virtual teams and more complex organizations and could not find any – Eventually I realized this was a gap in the market so I set up Global Integration in 1994 to focus on this.

Since then we worked with about 300 organizations, most of them were trying to become more connected and integrated but what we learned was that this also tended to make them slower, more expensive to run and less satisfying to work in.

Eventually we worked out that some traditional management techniques were actually making things worse in these big complex companies – an obsession with teamwork and cooperation, too much communication and control and the wrong types of community building.

When I sat down to write my book I realized we have developed lots of simple, fast ways to get things done and so “Speed Lead” was born. It gets a lot of interest, particularly from managers who have seen their companies grow fast in recent years or who have got promoted into new, more complex roles.

You have a wonderful diagram for the Matrix. Would you briefly explain Matrix management and the diagram?

the matrix

A matrix organization is just a structure that reflects the complexity of the modern business environment of multiple (often competing)  priorities. In the past organizations often had a functional organization inside a particular geography – so the US Marketing manager for a product – say widgets, worked for the US marketing VP who reported to the US President.

In a matrix, companies realize that there are different and sometimes competing priorities driven by function, geography, business unit, customer segment etc.. etc.. So that same US Marketing person today may have a reporting line to the Marketing functional head, to the Business line head for widgets, to the US geographic head for profit and loss etc…

But the structure itself solves nothing, it just lays out the problem more clearly, I think that all the value of the matrix lies in the way people work together to resolve daily conflicts and trade-offs

  • The pyramid is the basis for a training program we run on personal effectiveness in the matrix and describes some of the critical new skill areas.
  • Networking is how things get done – the structure becomes complex and people rely on personal networks and relationships to cut through the complexity.
  • Living with ambiguity is essential – individuals and companies put a lot of effort into achieving clarity but the purpose of a matrix is to trade clarity for flexibility – if you can achieve complete clarity then you don’t need a matrix!
  • Because of this ambiguity, role definition becomes very fluid, some people fight this but a more profitable strategy is to actively grab the freedom it gives to shape your role – the matrix offers a lot of opportunities to learn and extend yourself.
  • Influence without authority is important because a lot of activity is delivered without hierarchical power, people who can wield expert or relationship power often succeed in matrix. Traditional hierarchical power is undermined.
  • Managing multiple bosses is a double edged sword, paradoxically having 2 or more bosses gives you as an individual more scope to shape your role but you have to “earn the right to be left alone” or you can be pulled in different directions (you can see a couple of cartoons we have produced that illustrate this at ).
  • Competing priorities is kind of the point of the matrix, they will not go away so we need to develop the sills of managing trade-offs compromises and choices in a positive way – and of knowing when to let go of your priorities in the interests of the overall company.

It really is a new work environment for many people and especially challenging for managers used to amore hierarchical way of working.

What have your readers and clients been saying are the 3 most difficult problems to manage in the matrix?

It’s early days for the survey on the blog but it seems to back up what we know from our face to face training and consulting sessions

  • Too many people involved in decisions
  • Lack of alignment of objectives
  • Lack of role clarity

I am working on some new ideas on decision making at the moment. The other 2 come up all the time. Sometimes people are right – clarity helps, but often we see companies obsessively seeking clarity or trying to “get back to normal” – in reality this is the new normal so we have to clarify what we can but get used to lower levels of clarity in key areas.

I appreciated your post about communication. We can have too much of it. Please elaborate?

I get frustrated by managers telling me that the solution to every problem is a “lack of communication”. Our participants tell us they get 56 emails per day and over half of these are completely unnecessary, they spend a day per week in unnecessary meetings (you can test yourself and see how you compare at Does not sound like alack of communication to me!

Research has shown that teams that communicate too little have problems, but so do teams that communicate too much – my experience is that most people today get too high a volume of communication, and too low a quality.

We worked with a team in a silicon valley technology company recently, we improved their satisfaction with communication by 25% in 2 months – by halving the number and frequency of their regular “team meetings ” and conference calls! Less can be more.

My primary area of interest is employee engagement. What do you see as the impact of Matrix Management on Employee Engagement.

I think the impact is massive and was just working on this topic with one of my clients last month. Having a matrix does not cause reductions in engagement per se. A well run matrix can be fine, but it does change the nature of trust and sense of community and can lead to excessive involvement (characterized by too much information sharing, too many meetings and slow consensual decisions).

We need to take particular care when introducing a matrix that it is well communicated and that people are trained in the skills to cope.

The other impact on engagement is what solutions we propose when we get a poor engagement score – if people feel dissatisfied, the “knee-jerk” solution is often to increase participation and communication – the very things that have often undermined engagement in the first place. You do not improve engagement by more passive meetings and emails – try creating more space for unscripted human conversations instead.

One final question that may elude some of the readers. Reading Football Club lost a lot of games in January and February but they have won a few lately. Are they back on track?

We may just have recovered form in time to prevent relegation, massive result for us last week against fellow strugglers. It’s the same team but confidence makes a huge difference. I think we will be fine.

Thank you Kevan. I encourage you to visit Kevan’s blog at  subscribe to the newsletter or take the Speed Lead test, and read his book Speed Lead – faster, simpler ways to manage people projects and teams in complex companies.

Interviewed by David Zinger

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  • Ron

    Fantastic article. I wonder if the Millennial Generation will adapt easier to this type of organization? Members of this generation tend to work well and adapt to complex environments and have an uncanny ability to filter and prioritize massive amounts of information.

    Thanks for another great post!

  • David Zinger

    It is a very rich interview. Good thought about the Millennial genration. I know Kevan is away on holidays but I bet he will respond to this for you.

  • Mark – Productivity501

    People often try to solve communication problems by adding more communications. It is good to hear someone suggesting that we communicate less often, but more effectively.

  • Kevan Hall

    Thanks for the comments folks, back from holiday.

    Ron – I think the millennial generation question is a good one.

    I think their familiarity with technology will help but I often see them lacking focus on searching out answers and critically in applying them in reality. I see a lot of time wasted in jumping from topic to topic and in continual distractions (see a couple of the posts on on this)

    I also think that investment in people management skills has lost out to investment in technology in recent years and it is applying ideas through people that often counts.

    I am sure they will be more comfortable with it but will they be more effective?

    Or, on reflection, it could be that I am becoming an old git!

    In reality I think that there is less difference between the generations than we often think, a lot of it is about life stages rather than fundamentally different world views.

  • David Zinger

    I think the term applying ideas through people or with people is so important. Jennifer Deal wrote a wonderful book called Retiring the Generation Gap which would support your thought that there is less generational difference.

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