INFOGRAPHIC: The 4 Aspects of Fast and Effective Decision Making

| By Terence Brake

Anyone who currently works in a matrix organisation – or has done so in the past – is very familiar with what I call matrix mud – the ambiguity and confusion about the who’s, what’s, when’s, how’s, and why’s.

A key principle of management for a century or more has been ‘unity of command’ – an employee should only report to one boss otherwise there will be disorder.  In a stable, relatively unchanging environment, that principle was highly functional. 

Since the middle of the 20th century, however, globalisation and the digital revolution have generated much higher levels of turbulence.  A rigid unity of command structure slows down organisational responsiveness to change, and so organisations have sought to nurture the ‘agility of command’.  Enter the matrix organisation with its mix of horizontal and vertical lines of authority and responsibility.

Unfortunately, matrix organisations can be as slow and unresponsive as a traditional hierarchy with its unity of command structure.  New forms of agile organisation have been proposed such as Holacracy, Adhocrachy, and Wirearchy, but before leaping into another structural solution it might be worth examining the matrix in more depth. 

I’m sure you know the term Achilles’ heel – an individual or organisational vulnerability that can lead to a downfall despite its overall strength.  The vulnerability point of a matrix is most often decision making.   A matrix cannot be effective unless there is clarity of decision roles and rights.  This is the best piece of matrix management advice you’ll ever have: “People can have more than one boss, but decisions can’t.”  Effective decision making in a matrix must be engineered; it cannot be left to chance.   

Matrix leaders (decision engineers) need to concentrate their attention on four enablers of effective matrix decisions.  Ideally, they would be attended to as the matrix is being developed, but the decision engineering framework can be useful at any time.  The four enablers of effective matrix decisions are: Intent, Governance, Culture, and Process.

Intent

Desired Outcome: Aligned decisions

Why does your matrix exist?  What is its overall intent?  A clear Intent enables distributed decisions to align around a common purpose while enabling agility in the face of change and uncertainty.  In the military, an understanding of the Commander’s Intent provides guidance to the troops when they must take initiative and improvise without direct orders.  Without an understanding of the overall intent of the matrix, members will most likely make sub-optimal decisions based on their narrow perspectives and limited ‘local’ interests.

Some Leader Tips

  1. Establish a single unifying intent for the matrix team(s)
  2. Give matrix intent an external as well as internal customer focus
  3. Focus attention on the horizontal dimension of the matrix (project) which is outwardly focused rather than the vertical dimension (function) which is internally focused
  4. Keep a clear eye on intent while recognizing tactical plans may need to be adapted or recreated quickly 
  5. Embed and reinforce matrix intent in communications and events

Governance

Desired outcome: Disciplined decisions

A network might be self-governing, but a matrix isn’t.  It needs stewards who care for the health of the matrix, i.e. make policies, set priorities for resource allocation, and assign key decision rights and accountabilities.  Not every decision is going to be a ‘critical’ decision (fundamentally important to the success of the matrix), but those that are should be identified early on and planned for (particularly the decision on who has ownership of the final decision?) 

Some Leader Tips

  • Build a guiding coalition of key stakeholders; minimize the number who need to be consulted
  • Identify a small number of key metrics for monitoring progress
  • Be proactive and identify potential risk/conflict areas
  • Define clear roles and responsibilities; avoid overlapping roles
  • Offer guidance on non-critical matrix decisions without micromanaging
  • Write down important agreements and share

Culture

Desired outcome: Quality decisions

A requirement for effective matrix decision making is a collaborative and inclusive culture that helps identify, explore, and work with the perspectives and needs of diverse stakeholders. Collaborative information sharing and joint problem-solving is critical for ensuring quality because a considerable amount of work in the matrix is often non-routine.  The work will also be performed in a variety of different contexts that must be understood and taken into account, e.g. professional, organizational, and national cultures.  Not every decision should be the result of collaboration, but key decisions should have broad input and consensus.

Some Leader Tips

  • Reward cooperative and collaborative behaviors
  • Drive engagement by using questions rather than commands
  • Encourage ‘working out loud’ (e.g. via social networking) to aid communication and transparency
  • Recognize mistakes will happen in a complex matrix; don’t stigmatize failure but get to the truth faster
  • Role model side-by-side problem solving rather than direct confrontation; be intolerant of blame games and finger-pointing
  • Role model both/and thinking rather than either/or thinking

Process

Desired outcome: Rapid decision making

Horizontal processes are what drive the speed of decision making across the matrix.  An important question is: where should processes and practices be formalized across the matrix to eliminate unnecessary complexity and decision points?  Some candidates for standardization include: planning, organizing, formal communications, monitoring, and reporting.  A formal process for handling disagreements can also add value.  If operations are not simple, smooth and efficient the matrix can easily deplete motivational energy, and turn decision making into a grind.

   
Some Leader Tips

  • Focus on a way of working together rather than an overly formal organizational structure; don’t over-engineer the matrix or load it with too many projects
  • Drive for simplification and function/process alignment
  • Remove unnecessary layers from the vertical and horizontal axes
  • Clarify ‘hand-offs’ of work - interdependencies
  • Ensure information flows are relevant and timely
  • Keep meetings to a minimum
  • Craft meetings to facilitate decision making; information exchange and updates can be done in other ways

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