Big. Complex. Matrixed.

Getting things done in large organizations

Photo by Xavi Cabrera

If you ever work for a large corporation with complicated matrixed org structures, you’ll broadly find two types of people

Type 1: People that wait for instructions, and wait for things to happen — They’ll tell you all the reasons why something cannot be done

Type 2: People who want to make things happen, try different things, find out all the ways how something can work.

Wrong incentives in a cash-rich organization breed lots of Type 1 behavior. but here is the thing — while we might think Type 1 folks are just lazy people being who they are. that’s hardly the case.

You see, most people when they join a new organization, are enthusiastic about the opportunities that lie ahead of them. They join as Type 2 people, brimming with optimism on what they’ll achieve and the impact they’ll have — but then in a few years realize how difficult executing anything is and just how long everything takes. They slowly turn into pessimists, who have accepted that no matter what they do, nothing will ever change.

Why does this happen?

It certainly isn’t because corporations don’t attract top talent. Large companies are in an enviable position to recruit some of the best talent out there — and they do. Instead, its because of what happens after somebody is hired into a new role.

By design in a matrixed organization, everything is more complicated.

Many product lines, many more people and many more teams, overlapping responsibilities, reporting lines & shared resources, brand reputations to protect, top-down/bottoms up complexities, Legal and HR policies — you name it.

Large complex orgs. are run on processes, and processes themselves can become a bottleneck stifling the pace of decision making, innovation, and execution. It’s the nature of the beast.

Moving work in a large complex organization

All my professional career, I’ve only worked at large, complicated, highly matrixed organizations. I’ve experienced and observed these challenges firsthand myself. I’ve seen otherwise driven people become disheartened and leave.

But then I’ve also seen people who are masters of executing things despite these challenges. By some inner superpower, these people have taken it upon themselves to move the organization forward, to drive innovation, and to force change year after year.

They’ve somehow found the elixir to remain undeterred by the complexities around them. They’ve learned to swim through the ambiguities and find a direction — and then they’ve found a way to get the rest of the organization to follow. In large companies, most work happens due to these numbered, but super high agency individuals.

I have observed and worked with some of these High Agency people for more than a decade now — and here are some characteristics that set them apart from everybody else in an organization.

They define their roles

When you join a large company, there is always a lot to do. And one of the most important things you can do is to define your role. Of course, there is a job description that you were handed when you interviewed — but in most cases, you’ll find that your real job actually differs quite a bit.

Defining your role is important because it helps you understand why you do what you do — the purpose of the job and its value to the organization. It then helps you evaluate every task that you have against that purpose and helps you stay focused.

I’ve now observed consistently that highly effective people take the first few weeks in a new role to understand their operating environment and figure out where and how they fit in the organizational matrix.

They learn about what the low-hanging fruits are, what the business must achieve in the medium term, and what the long term looks like. They then define their roles accordingly to achieve these goals.

Defining your role is especially important for roles that are inherently ambiguous (e.g. Product Manager, Business Development etc. ) and could mean different things depending upon the company, the team, maturity of the business, etc.

And by the way, if you don’t define what your roles and responsibilities are, somebody else will. And chances are you might not like it.

They Practice Radical Transparency

Artificial harmony plagues complex organizations — where teams, even when they are cooperating with each other, are doing so because they have to. On the outside everything seems to be fine — but underneath the calm, there are resentments, frustrations, and personal grudges that people hold.

Patrick M. Lencioni in his book The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team lays out why that happens. In summary, Artificial harmony is a result of fear of conflict and a lack of trust that stifles open and honest discussion. It breeds a siloed organization where functions become black boxes to each other.

Individuals that can get things done in orgs can spot this, and they make it a priority to fix the underlying issues.

They drive a culture of transparency and psychological safety where issues can be discussed openly and objectively. They do so by creating a secure environment where people can have passionate, unfiltered debates and healthy conflicts. This is their superpower in many ways. This superpower enables them to drill down to the real issues — which in complicated endeavors, is half the battle.

Because everyone gets to say what they really think, team members feel heard and it drives much-needed buy-in. And when there is buy-in amongst teams and functions, work moves much faster.

They rip the band-aids off

Often in large organizations, many important structures and processes are band-aided together to just keep things moving. Nobody seems to have the time, or the incentive to look under the hood to fix the structural issues.

The larger an organization gets, the more people resort to managing symptoms — or at best treating them with half cures. It’s like taking the batteries out of a buzzing smoke detector instead of trying to find and douse the fire

This slowly but surely worsens the underlying issue until little things constantly snowball into a gargantuan mess, and worse still, for the next person to inherit.

Add to that poor performance management practices, where people who can band-aid situations are celebrated as problem solvers — but nobody cares about the “problem preventors” that nip issues in the bud so it never happens again.

People who are really great at execution are like great doctors. The best doctors look at the symptoms that the patient is experiencing, but alongside managing symptoms they are actually much more focused on treating the underlying cause of the disease.

Similarly, High agency individuals in an organization take the band-aids off quickly to look at the rot. They may experience pain in the short term — but they fix the root cause of the issue for good so that the next person doesn’t have to deal with it. While they might be overlooked for rewards and recognitions in the short term, they often emerge as the top and most trusted operators in an organization in the long term.

They are able to Disagree tactfully

How many times have you been in a meeting, where you in fact disagree with the decision being made but you didn’t voice your disagreement? This happens to a lot of people. It has happened to me.

Voicing disagreements openly is difficult for introverts, or for people that come from cultures and/or countries where it’s not the norm. Disagreeing with people, especially those more powerful than you, is naturally difficult since our amygdala is designed to help us avoid situations that might harm us.

And yet, I’ve observed that people who are able to articulate their concerns and disagreements tactfully are the ones that are most likely to succeed in large organizations. After all, honest disagreements force much-needed clarity in situations where complexities galore.

People who do this well follow a well-thought-out strategy.

First, they are never disrespectful when citing their concerns. When disagreeing with a superior, they evaluate the risks and offer them psychological safety and control. And perhaps most importantly, right after they’ve articulated their concern, they follow it up with the reasons for doing so & propose alternate solutions.

Here’s the thing. When you disagree with a decision and are willing to share your concerns and counterproposals with everybody, you are in fact giving your idea a shot to be accepted as the majority decision. You are also contributing directly to the discussion, helping the team pressure-test assumptions, and raising the overall quality of the decision-making. Just by speaking up, you make everyone aware of perspectives that they’d perhaps have otherwise missed.

Highly effective people use disagreements as a way to develop stronger strategies for the organization. But they also know that once a decision has been made it’s time to commit and execute.

Execution is difficult

Studies show that two-thirds to three-quarters of large organizations struggle when it comes to executing their strategies. And while Strategy is sexy, it’s the execution that really matters. Most large organizations yearn to close the gap between strategy and execution — and if you are able to help them execute, you’ll have a tremendous career.

👋 Thanks for reading! follow me on Twitter where I share learnings on product management, coding & side projects I am working on.

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