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Why Organizations Should Focus on Agile Rather Than Matrixed Teams

May 25, 2022 Digital Workplace
Siobhan Fagan
By Siobhan Fagan

At a time when collaboration is held at a premium, employees are increasingly finding themselves working on multiple teams. The phenomena isn't new. In 2019, ADP Research Institute found the majority of employees worked on more than one team, and this teamwork had the potential to improve employee engagement. But the same study found over three quarters of teams go unrecognized in the organizational directory. 

The challenge was further exacerbated in the last two years with the move to work from home. While teamwork aided in keeping projects on track and employees connected, when the number of teams a person worked on became obscured, the results could be negative for both the individual and the organization.

Matrixed teams is the term used to describe when people move from team to team and report to more than one boss. Gallup took a closer look at the concept last year and found that while it works in principle, there are considerable problems.

The Challenges of Matrixed Teams

In its strictest definition, a matrix organization is where employees have more than one boss. Gallup's research identifies three distinct types of matrixed teams today:

  • Slightly matrixed: Employees who sometimes work on multiple teams with people who may or may not report to the same manager.
  • Manager-matrixed: Employees who work on multiple teams every day with different people, but most team members report to the same manager.
  • Highly matrixed: Employees who work on multiple teams every day with different people who report to different managers.

"When matrixed teams work well, it enhances collaboration, communication, creativity and resource-sharing across the organization," the report read. "Gallup data also show that highly matrixed workers tend to feel more connected to their teammates and more appreciated for their contributions."

Yet, there are also potential downfalls. According to the Gallup report, the root causes of the problems that arise with a matrix structure can be traced back to three main obstacles:

  1. Cognitive overload (more demands to balance).
  2. Role conflict and ambiguity (contradictory or unclear expectations).
  3. Coordination problems (difficulty orchestrating collaborative efforts).

These are all issues that are further exacerbated by a remote or hybrid work model, where clear and constant communication is key. 

Related Article: Finding the Balance Between Deep Work and Collaboration

The Case for Agile

Agile can provide an antidote to the downsides of matrixed teams. It retains the nimbleness and cross-organizational power of the matrixed team while providing a structure and transparency sometimes lacking in the other approach. 

Leaders are constantly seeking lean and agile ways of working across all parts of their organization. After all, data shows that agile projects are far more likely to succeed than traditional waterfall efforts. This can be because agile teams are small, self-contained and empowered to deliver a complete solution. 

Wayne Pernell, a leadership coach and author, said the concept of agile started as a framework for more effectively addressing complex problems of software development. But traditional technology organizations that used highly matrixed teams, drawing people from many groups to work on a project, often did not succeed — for several reasons, including:

  • Information loss: As project work moved from one team to another, too much valuable information was lost. Requirements and designs were distilled into written documents, but the context and rich conversation were lost.
  • Blame game: Matrixed project team members only own a segment of the end-to-end process and not the entire solution. Consequently, people will optimize their work at the expense of the team. Problems and poor quality get passed down the line, and team members start playing the “blame game.”
  • Context switching reduces productivity: There is a 20% to 40% loss in productivity when people shift from working on one project to the next. People who support more than three projects lose more time to context switching than they do working on a single project.

Lean-agile ways of working solve these problems. The difference between agile and lean is that lean-thinking teams increase speed by managing flow (usually by limiting work-in-process), whereas agile teams emphasize small batch sizes to deliver quickly (often in sprints). In the lean-agile solution:

  • Teams are small: An agile team is large enough to get the job done, and small enough for effective collaboration. Team sizes generally range from five to 11 people. Small groups can coordinate activities and share information more effectively.
  • Self-contained: Teams are self-contained and possess the skills needed to deliver the solution. There is less information and context lost because work is not handed off. The team is now accountable, and blame-shifting is no longer an option.
  • Productive: Lean-agile organizations avoid the start-up lull as team members learn how to work together. They develop their self-enforcing normative behaviors and operating cadence.

Coming out of the pandemic with the benefit of hindsight, even some of the biggest organizations with robust business-continuity planning strategies fell short of the lean-agile model.

Related Article: The End of the Social Collaboration Experiment: The Technology Is the Problem

4 Ways to Future-proof an Organization

To achieve and maintain growth, leaders need their teams working well. Yamini Bhat, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Vymo, said organizations must look to build strong remote teams across the digital workplace. He lists four ways to do so that are embedded in the lean-agile work model:

  • Restructure: Restructure the organization to make it less hierarchical and more interconnected to enable easy exchange of ideas and information.
  • Build: Build a strong culture and value ecosystem that forms the backbone of the organization, so that the rules of engagement are defined without ambiguity. This will lead to increased collaboration and build credibility within teams to make decisions and lead.
  • Plan for agility: Teams should be able to make faster decisions and stay resilient in the event of a wrong move. They also should be empowered to quickly rebound and course-correct if the situation demands it.
  • Leverage AI and ML: AI can support personalization and knowledge mining at future workplaces, minimizing the time spent on looking for information or creating information that may already exist in internal systems.

Organizations may also need to consider changing their leadership style. “I believe leaders will understand the value of leading from the center vis-a-vis the forefront,” Bhat said. 

Staying in touch with the pulse of the organization, standing in alignment with the team, taking a place in the battle and being empathetic are valued leadership qualities, especially in the digital workplace.

Related Article: The Era of 'Company Before Self' Is Defunct

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