Leading in Complexity – Making sense of Matrix, Culture and Virtual Working

Robert Paul Schwippert and Theresa Sigillito Hollema


The importance of an integrated approach to leading change

Many of our customers experience change coming from various angles simultaneously: A new operating model (matrix organization) is implemented, leaving employees with ambiguous responsibilities and diffuse decision making processes. In addition, their former team members have been replaced by a new group of international colleagues located in different geographies across the globe. This means they now not only need to work virtually but also are facing the challenge of dealing with different cultures and needing to adjust to ‘unfamiliar’ behaviors. So change is impacting from all sides....  Let’s take a closer look at the three elements that constitute this complexity and how we can help leaders to work effectively with these challenges…

1. Matrix Organization: mindset change to deal with ambiguity. The matrix allows companies to leverage resources while staying agile and task-oriented. However, leading within a matrix can present challenges since it violates the traditional principles of authority and therefore its inhabitants are often confronted with ambiguity for instance, different bosses having different priorities or tensions between seemingly competing objectives.

One solution that many consulting companies teach is to create alignment. Reviewing roles and responsibilities in more detail and creating structure, e.g. RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed) charts, can be helpful to bring more clarity. However the matrix is designed for its flexibility – and prescribing detailed processes and escalation procedures, may actually work against this objective.

We think it is more important to develop the leaders mindset in dealing with ambiguity and managing the tension between conflicting propositions. By developing the leader’s competence to apply an integrative mindset and combine rather than antagonize seemingly opposing value propositions; we unlock space for innovation and new opportunities to leverage the benefits of this organizational structure.

2. Cultural differences: connecting viewpoints to facilitate successful collaboration. When people from different cultural backgrounds come together, the rules of operation and ways of working together can no longer be taken for granted. E.g. some cultures tend to communicate directly and say bluntly what is on their mind, other cultures are more careful and use an indirect and subtle communication style to share their opinions. Similarly concepts such as decision making, accountability etc. are different from one culture to another, thus presenting a challenge in effective collaboration.

However difficult this may be, there is an upside. It has been proven that more diversity can lead to better business results. If we are able to leverage the different viewpoints in the (virtual) room, we are able to build on each other and find creative and innovative solutions. But how does one develop this competence?

By exploring the various layers of culture, going beyond the behaviors at the surface to understand the underlying different basic assumptions, we help leaders to understand different points of view. Using the Seven Dimension model of culture, we can provide a framework for discussing culture, thus broadening the leader’s perspective and helping them capitalize on differences - a process of enrichment.

3. Working virtually: leveraging technology to work effectively across geographies and time zones. Leading a team in the virtual space is different than leading an onsite team, and leaders need to learn and develop new skills and practices to succeed.  Working virtually with technology and physical distance seems to encourage a focus on tasks, deliverables, updates at the expense of relationship and trust building, which are the essential for team collaboration and effectiveness.  As more teams become virtual, how does a leader create the environment for a high performance team?

Research is showing that leading virtual teams is possible, but requires a new mindset and leadership practices.   Building the relationships between team members virtually is possible when leaders dedicate time and attention to the relational aspects of the team.  Technology can enhance the team working processes when the tools used fit the tasks at hand.  Team members can learn to rely on each other and build the collaboration by maintaining a regular stream of communication to keep each other informed.  Working virtually effectively is a new way of working, and can support successful global teams.

Our approach is to help the leaders to develop the mindset and competences to lead teams, which collaborate, communicate and achieve results in the virtual space. We start with the latest research from academia and interpret this to practical approaches for leaders and teams that they can apply immediately.  Being open for working virtually is not always easy for people who prefer face-to-face, but our ideas can help people to navigate the reality of working virtually and realize the advantages of the global teams.

Conclusion. We recognize the high degree of complexity that leaders face in these times. By exploring the dynamics of each of the changes, focusing on creating a mindset to deal with ambiguity, developing intercultural competence and exploring new ways of working, we are able to help leaders to be effective in these environments. Using researched based models and translating these to pragmatic solutions and techniques allow us to facilitate the journey towards reflective practitioners that are able to lead effectively in our complex world.