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Is the matrix the key to innovation?

Posted by Signe Spencer

Signe Spencer

Increasingly, companies seeking to accelerate innovation are turning to matrix management. Are they making the right choice?

Let’s be clear: Launching a matrix team no more guarantees successful innovations than building a railroad track guarantees high-speed rail service.

However, Hay Group’s research into the competencies and attributes exhibited by both effective matrix leaders and leaders who have delivered important innovations has shown important similarities in fundamental aspects of their leadership styles and approaches.

1. Comfortable crossing boundaries.

Several years ago Hay Group worked with a company in geophysics whose leaders were seeking to understand the factors that supported marketable innovations. HayGroup interviewed the company’s most distinguished scientists, a group of researchers who were deeply involved in their specialties and mostly worked alone.

Surprise! These “lone wolves” revealed that all their strongest innovations involved collaboration. Moreover, they willingly sought partners for their efforts, because, as one told us, “the problems we’re dealing with are so complicated that no one can know enough on their own to solve them.”

To that end, successful innovators sought partners who had knowledge that complemented their own. They also sought partners with different backgrounds, and indeed the clash of different perspectives has long been recognized as an inherent part of the creative process.

Similarly, matrix teams, by definition, reach across conventional company boundaries, bringing together peers from different vertical organizations, with different experiences and priorities, into a group that functions across the hierarchy.

Leadership implications:
In both cases, effective leaders must have the capacity to think broadly, beyond the interests of their immediate supervisor and subordinates. They must have the self-awareness to consider fairly viewpoints that are different from their own, and the collaborative skills to ultimately reconcile these differing viewpoints.

2. Galvanized by a purpose.

If innovation involves the clash of different perspectives, those clashes require resolution. But what can guide a leader in mediating resolutions to ensure that each leads toward a new and useful creation?

The answer is a clear and compelling purpose, a goal bigger than any individual or department that provides a foundational support for the effort. For most businesses, this supportive goal is to serve customers better; some retail organizations call it “creating the best customer experience.” Superior innovators, such as those at Apple, have taken it a step further, seeking to serve customers in ways they didn’t even know to ask for!

In our joint study of innovators in the federal government, co-authored with the Partnership for Public Service, we identified a different underlying motivation. We called it “patriotic stewardship” – a dedication to country and a commitment to serve as a responsible steward of taxpayer money.

In a matrix, leaders cannot rely on traditional hierarchical authority to motivate team members or resolve conflicts. To be effective, therefore, they must also tap a shared commitment of team members, by invoking a strong and clear purpose that supercedes individuals.

Leadership implications:
Whether in a matrix or leading an effort for innovation, effective leaders know how to use a fundamental and even idealistic purpose – informed by their breadth of vision – to guide a focused resolution of opposing viewpoints, to motivate team members, and to gain the support of key outsiders.

3. Aware of the importance of positive conditions.

Any person involved in a creative effort will tell you that innovation is fragile. New ideas require time and cooperative collaboration to be transformed from a vaporous glimmer to a fully robust, viable proposal. A single dismissive criticism can derail the process.

Similarly, Teresa Amabile at Harvard found that a single negative interaction with a manager can suppress creative thinking for days. In short, positive conditions within a team seeking an innovation are essential to success.

Conditions outside the team are just as important. For example, our research has shown that when the goals of innovative effort are closely aligned with the goals of senior organizational leaders, outcomes are more often positive. The team is more likely to obtain the resources and people it needs, and gain assistance and support in surmounting internal and external barriers.

Conditions are equally important to a matrix – a discovery we made while conducting the research for Hay Group’s Mastering Matrix Leadership programs. We found that the competencies of matrix leaders alone did not account for the differences in business outcomes. Not until we factored in the quality of conditions – both within and outside the team – could we accurately account for results.

Leadership implications:
All effective leaders know the importance of creating a positive climate to motivate their teams. That’s doubly true in a matrix – where the tools of hierarchical authority typically don’t apply – and when leading innovation, because no one can order a subordinate to be creative.

Just as importantly, leaders in both situations also recognize the importance of external conditions – including those they can only control indirectly through persuasion, relationships and organizational knowledge. They have the leadership competencies, such as sensitivity to others’ goals, to exercise their influence and induce the results they seek.

Final thoughts.
A team charged with developing a useful innovation does not have to be matrixed to be effective; it’s not the matrix structure that creates the conditions to support creativity.

But the same leadership capabilities that deliver successful business outcomes from matrix teams – the way of thinking, of listening, of working with and motivating peers, of influencing supervisors and managing conditions – do support innovation. And by the way, all the research discussed here is the result of collaborative innovation.

In short, effective matrix leaders are good candidates to lead teams charged with developing innovative products or services. That gives every company one more reason to improve their managers’ matrix leadership.

Signe Spencer, a senior consultant at Hay Group, conducted much of the research that supported the development of Hay Group’s Mastering Matrix Leadership programs, and recently helped develop the competency model for innovation in the federal government, for the Innovation in Government series created by the Partnership for Public Service and Hay Group.

 

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