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Matrix Teams in the Public Sector

horizontal leadershipMatrix teams are a useful tool that results in enhanced employee development, improved teamwork and greater entrepreneurial outcomes.


What are Matrix Teams?

First used in 1947 by General Chemicals and then brought to the public sector by NASA in the early 1960s, matrix teams include people from different departments, functions or organizations who band together to solve a common problem or achieve a goal through collaboration.  Matrix teams facilitate horizontal flow of skills and information.  Employees are selected from different functional disciplines for assignment to a team without removing the employees from their regular organizational positions.  A matrix team brings together a multi-disciplined group of diverse experts to resolve an issue, meet a specific need or steer a process toward success.

When a problem, a shift in governing board direction or community expectation arises that creates the need to work in cross-department or multiagency groups, staff can form into teams that work outside the traditional reporting structure or job classifications.  A team will form, move through midlife as it examines an issue, mature as it resolves an issue, then disband when finished or transform into a new mission to affect a new outcome.  This process develops depth in employees and allows for opportunities and solutions that are often unexpected.


Value of Matrix Teams

There are several reasons why public agencies may want to use a strategy that includes matrix teams.  Staff members often have capabilities and expertise in areas other than their primary position.  Matrix teams allow an agency to utilize the talents of all staff, regardless of their regular payroll position.

Some matrix teams are established specifically to increase the speed with which projects and/or processes move to completion.  A matrix team can reduce or eliminate the traditional, hierarchical, pyramid-shaped bureaucracy.  A characteristic of matrix teams is to bring the right people and resources into a collaborative work space at the optimum time to resolve problems and complete projects with the best possible information.

Many project-driven matrix teams are temporary in nature.  After the project or task is completed, the team is eliminated.  Members still function together on other teams, so the relationships and communication between them remains intact.  Matrix management can allow staff to serve on multiple teams, in parallel processes, so there is continual communication and transfer of knowledge between team members.


Employee Development

One proponent of matrix teams is Ted Gaebler, co-author of the 1992 bestseller Reinventing Government and current City Manager in Rancho Cordova, California.  In an interview, Gaebler said, “Matrix teams are very honoring of the human beings inside an organization.  People like to be asked to help.  They like to be working out of class.  They like to be asked for their brains rather than their brawn.  They like to work with their co-workers, rather than in isolation.  People tend to want to collaborate.”

Matrix teams foster a culture of self-discipline, empowerment and a motivation to proactively take leadership roles to solve problems and move toward common goals.  When asked why public agencies should consider the use of matrix teams, Gaebler said, “You have to build a culture where many people are seen as capable of being presenters and thinkers.  Matrix teams allow for the safety of people making presentations, taking responsibility for agendas, dealing with difficult people, or holding others accountable.  You are building capacity for people to deal with the things that normally happen in the daily life of an organization.  That’s a huge plus because you’re preparing people for higher level management.”


Improved Teamwork

In the organic matrix team environment, multiple projects often occur simultaneously and members are encouraged to act as both resources and leaders.  There are times when back-to-back meetings are scheduled to discuss separate projects.  No one leaves the room between meetings, although the roles of the participants change between projects.  The fact that team members change roles as they work through various projects enhances communication and builds camaraderie.  A team member will usually give full effort as a follower when they know that other concurrent projects will place them in the role of a leader, dependent on followers who are themselves leaders for other projects.

Team members in organizations with good communication and camaraderie are more likely to be better connected in a common vision and mission, and more coordinated in their pursuit of common outcomes, goals and objectives.  Organizations that work toward enhancing tools and opportunities for information sharing and individual connections among employees are better positioned to shape a culture of cooperation, collaboration, and belonging.  Matrix teams are key “leveraging” devices for enhancing communication and building camaraderie.


Entrepreneurial Outcomes

“A central theme in reinvention is that only more entrepreneurial forms of government will enable public administrators to effectively deal with problems and capitalize on opportunities in contemporary society”, states Robert and Janet Denhardt in their 2008 book, Public Administration: An Action Orientation, “Entrepreneurial government…refers to more streamlined, flexible, and responsive systems of public policy and administration.”  Matrix teams provide the mechanism for a streamlined, flexible, and responsive approach that takes advantage of opportunities and affords a resourceful method of problem solving.  The advantages of a flexible approach include the ability to take action in conditions of uncertainty and complexity, and changes in technology, economic conditions and citizen desires.

An entrepreneurial approach allows for the redeployment and reuse of existing services in continually and increasingly innovative ways.  Upon meeting Ted Gaebler in 1985, David Osborne wrote in The Most Entrepreneurial City in America, “At first glance, ‘entrepreneurial government’ seems a contradiction in terms. Many entrepreneurs consider government, by its very nature, to be inefficient, unwieldy, and bureaucratic — the antithesis of entrepreneurial.”  Osborne continues, “Ted Gaebler and his colleagues have proven that there is another way.”  Gaebler has used matrix teams for decades to facilitate entrepreneurial outcomes.

The entrepreneurial approach requires a consistent search for better ways to utilize existing resources to create superior outcomes in the delivery of services, enhancement of revenues, and increased return on public dollars spent.  This approach allows for greater development and leveraging of resources to meet community needs.  Matrix teams allow for human capital to be continually redeployed in ways that are creative, make the most use of all positive attributes of each staff member, and allow for the continual improvement in the utilization of all available talents in an organization.


Secret to Success

One secret to the success of matrix teams is knowing the working styles, personalities and needs of each team member.  Because of the collaborative nature of matrix teams, it is beneficial for team members to deeply understand their own styles to better get along with others.  When team members understand and appreciate the styles of their teammates, they can create strategies for overcoming challenges and improving work productivity, teamwork and communication.

One tool for learning the working styles of team members is the DISC assessment.  This non-judgmental personal assessment tool uses four aspects of behavior (Drive, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness) to allow team members to adapt their varied styles for cohesiveness and compatibility.



Matrix teams create a culture and an environment that ultimately leads to a greater empowerment of employees and preparation for greater leadership roles in an organization.  Matrix teams maximize the problem solving capability of an organization while at the same time, encourage employees in a supportive environment, to grow in their own capacities, skills, and leadership talents.  Matrix teams provide a mechanism to continually redeploy the skills and abilities of all team members in new and creative combinations to better achieve the goals of the organization.


Author:  ASPA member Troy Holt, MPA, has twenty-four years of public agency management experience in departments ranging from Police, Public Works, Transportation, Administrative Services and the City Manager’s Office.  He is currently the Communications and Legislative Affairs Manager for the City of Rancho Cordova, CA, the first local government agency to earn the distinction as a Fortune Great Place to Work.  He can be reached via email at [email protected].


Image courtesy of http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/leadership/horizontal.html.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Matrix Teams in the Public Sector

  1. Pingback: Making Your Organization More Nimble: Encouraging Agility and Innovation in People and Process | PA TIMES Online

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