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  • Writer's picturelindsayannkohler

The Matrix Revolution

This post originally appeared in the May 2022 version of HRDirector.

During lockdown and the rush to remote working, collaboration between different parts of the business became more difficult and created communication barriers and unnecessary levels of bureaucracy, which reinforced silos within the business. Reflecting on all that we have experienced, those businesses that insist on returning to the old working hierarchy model risk losing talent, as well as access to the innovation and creativity that alternative working models unlock. A more fluid work structure allows teams to change tactics more quickly and adapt more easily to shifting demands. It also allows more room for experts from other departments to move around teams as needed. That said, leaders must go in with eyes wide open, a distributed workforce - and the hierarchy that emerges to best support it - needs clear accountability. Ambiguity in job duties and ownership arises more easily in a distributed workforce, so constant communication on expectations is key.

So, what alternative hierarchical models will emerge and how might this impact succession planning?

Different businesses and industries will, of course, have different models that emerge as predominant, but many will discover that traditional hierarchies are an inappropriate framework to base a distributed workforce’s leadership structure on. One key reason for this is that it better lends itself to distributed networks of power. Networks are decentralised and often lack visible leadership or figureheads, which comes with many benefits. However, a cautionary note on going too far in the other direction is that the opposite of a traditional hierarchy is one that is completely decentralised and solely reliant on self-organisation and self-management to work. The most famous example of this so-called ‘Holarctic’ style is the shoe retailer Zappos, which rolled out a ‘no job titles and no managers’ organisational style, only to find out quickly that wasn’t the worker’s Utopia it had envisaged. One downside to having no formal power structures is that informal power structures emerge, often with no accountability, creating an environment, where bullying and harassment can thrive.

So, the winner is likely to be a blend of the two styles, one that favours skills and competency.

Importantly, succession planning in the future has to be about skills, not favourites, as seen in the traditional succession planning culture, which was based on direct lines of reporting and grooming someone for a particular role. Indeed, Harvard Business School research shows that the concept of an ‘old boys’ club’ at work is real and found that men managed by men are promoted faster than any other group. One caveat is that this research was conducted when physical presence in the office was still the norm and it is too early to tell if a shift to hybrid working will reduce the promotional effects of proximity bias. But the point is, promotions of the past were largely based on factors that, in many cases, had little to do with competency and efficiency.


So, what measures will we use to identify potential successors and base promotions on going forward, if not the markers of high visibility to peers or best friendship with the boss? Skills and impact, of course, because the prominent skills needed to propel a business forward become more obvious when everyone is less physically visible. Those with business-critical skills - versus those in close proximity to the powers that be - will rise into positions of power, based on the respect they gain as subject matter experts. But this rise won’t follow traditional hierarchical structures. Rather, more heavily matrixed organisations will emerge because of this shift in what traits a business values in a leader and how it chooses who leads. A matrixed structure helps to embrace leaning on the most ‘qualified person’ to make a decision, rather than x the most ‘senior person’.

Matrixed organisations aren’t necessarily new, go back to 2016 and a Gallup poll reported that 84 percent of employees had experienced matrix working at some point, to differing extents. But matrix organisations will become more common in a distributed workforce and one driving reason for this is that a key area that matrixed organisations thrive in is collaboration. Embracing new ways of collaboration - and collaborating with more people across the organisation - was one of the pandemic’s key wins. This is because a distributed workforce evens the playing field between remote-only and onsite workers and simply functions more cohesively, if the organisation structure is matrixed. So, the burning question is, do we still need bosses in a distributed workforce? The answer is yes - and likely more than one - because in matrixed organisations, employees have more than one direct reporting line. But this manager will not look like the bosses of yesteryear because, while teams that self- organise don’t require a manager to assign work, they still need someone to encourage, mentor and help develop their skills. So, an increase in leadership coaching among people at all levels of a business - not just the C-suite - will become more common.

Above all else, adaptation, flexibility and resilience will be the keys to making a matrixed hierarchical model thrive and distributed working encourages all three. As we adjust to the changes required in succession planning, leaders must take a moment for self-reflection and focus on being a force of support for their people, enable them to do their best work and move out of the way, rather than being a hindrance. We need to go the extra mile to clarify roles within the new structure that emerge in the business.

The alternative is to double-down on control, cling to outdated management models and risk losing talented people.

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