Blaire Palmer is CEO of That People Thing, a consultancy dedicated to inspiring leaders in fast-paced, ambitious businesses to drive change in their organisations in partnership with their people. Blaire has been described as a "secret weapon", a "business muse" and "that lady who does the leadership and team stuff". She is a regular guest expert on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show and has appeared on BBC Breakfast News and BBC Working Lunch.

For a long-time the most glamorous jobs in the professional development industry were up trees, in caves and hauling metres of hemp rope in a hard hat.

I’m talking about the outward-bound type team-builds that were all the rage in the 80s through to the noughties. If you weren’t going to drop a team off the sheer face of a cliff, challenge them to cross a river using only a pile of pallets and some baling twine, or dump them on a secluded hillside with a bag of tent poles, a tarpaulin and a can of beans (sans can-opener to see how the applied their ingenuity) then what kind of team-building fly-by-night did you think you were?

The whole concept of “team” is being re-thought. Because we all exist in the matrix now.

There’s still plenty of money to be made running these kinds of “experiential learnings” but these days most people are too busy and too cautious to spend their company’s money on a jolly.

The best type of team-building?

More than that, did they ever actually work? Is a team better able to address business critical topics, make tough decisions, identify root causes and inspire their people because they spent a very wet and very cold night together half way up Snowdon hacking at a tin of beans with a tent pole?

But more than that, the whole concept of “team” is being re-thought. Because we all exist in the matrix now.

Goodbye to cosy, functional teams

In the old days you will have spent most of your time in your cosy, functional team. You had little to do with “the business” which was an entity separate to your own. Instead, you sat with your HR colleagues all day, isolated from the rest of the company, with your opinions about what matters being reinforced by people who “get it”.

Your colleagues in Finance, IT and Sales felt the same, by the way – talking the same language as each other, seeing the business from the same angle, through the same lens, reassuring each other that, if only everyone else saw things as they did, the company would be far better off.

But those days are over. How much time do you get to chew that fat with your HR friends now? You’re part of a CBU, you're a business partner, you’re attached to an affiliate or a product.

Solid and dotted lines are the norm

You’ve got a solid line in to the function head but a dotted line in to the local head. You’re part of a couple of project teams, each with their own project leader.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have two line managers. Or you report to the head of your function within your business but you’ve also got an equivalent at group headquarters.

And perhaps your organization is structured by solution but your internal customer is structured by region (or vice versa) so you are part of a range of regional teams representing your solution alongside other people in your function who are representing theirs.

When I initially predicted the end of conventional hierarchies, the first question I got was ‘But who will do my appraisal?’ Of course, as we now know, who does your appraisal is the least of your concerns if you now live in the world I’ve described.

In a matrix, our conventional understanding of teams is blown to pieces. And this is a Good Thing.

Silos are terrible for creativity

Stagnant functional teams create silos and silos keep information and ideas trapped in disparate parts of the organization. That’s very bad for creativity. Creativity occurs when two seemingly unrelated concepts collide. And that can’t happen when information and ideas are locked within stagnant teams.

In a matrix, our conventional understanding of teams is blown to pieces

Of course, we know that the matrix, which was intended to overcome the disease of silos and create a more agile, responsive structure, has it’s own issues.

"Orphans looking for a family"

People don’t feel they have a home. They are orphans looking for a family to adopt them but instead are moved from one temporary foster home to another.

They can’t see their career path clearly because the hierarchy has been disrupted and the business is no longer made up of straight vertical lines.

They are managing conflicting priorities from multiple stakeholders who all have their own pressures and deadlines. And they are lonely – who do they talk to who really understands their world?

In reality, there is no structure that works perfectly. No matter how you organize your people you’ll gain some benefits and lose others.

The real problem is that the traditional hierarchy created families with parents and children, while the new matrix requires everyone to grow up and be adults. And we’re at the point in most companies where the kids are behaving like teenagers – they want their freedom, their autonomy, their voice to be heard. But they also want someone else to do their laundry and keep the fridge well-stocked.

"Struggling to let go"

Meanwhile the parents are struggling to let go and give their teens the space to learn by making mistakes because they may destroy the house and, anyway, they’ll always be your babies, right? What if they grow up and don’t need mummy and daddy any more?

In reality, there is no structure that works perfectly.

The matrix presents a cultural challenge not a structural one.

Making the matrix structure work for all

It only works when individuals see a connection between their behavior, their decisions, their attitudes and the results of the company.

It only works when they take responsibility for their contribution and make their own decisions about how they are going to make a difference.

It only works when they care enough about the company and its customers to know where they need to invest their energy and what they can neglect for now. In other words, it only works when the kids grow up.

And it only works when the senior leaders realize that their job is to turn their children in to productive adults and guide them through their teenage years without worrying that doing this successfully will diminish their own authority.

The matrix presents a cultural challenge not a structural one.

Rethink how you develop your people

It means a rethink of how you develop your people – your leaders and those they lead. Because any intervention that reinforces childlike and parent-like behaviours and mindsets undermines the structure you’ve intentionally created.

Any traditional “training”, any tell-and-sell style communication, any competition between functional heads, indeed any team building, risks sending conflicting messages. If you’re going to treat your people like children, how can they ever grow up? 

The bravery needs to come from HR. When a team begs you for training where an external trainer will simply tell them what to do differently, you need to resist.

Instead, provide a talented coach for them who will challenge their way of thinking about the problem and prod them to have their own ideas that address the specific challenges they face in their organization at this time.

When a leader wants to run a roadshow where they present the strategy followed by a nod towards participation – the 10 minute Q&A – you need to resist. That’s how you treat children, not to teenagers, let alone adults.

When a team (you still have them, they just look and operate differently today) thinks that an hour of paintballing followed by dinner together is going to resolve the challenges they’re facing, you need to resist. Invest in giving them time together to put the elephants on the table and have the conversations they’ve been avoiding.

Then they can go to dinner.

Re-thinking the team is the right thing to do. But you can’t just break a structure that has become part of people’s DNA and expect them to embrace it.

There’s some growing up to do.

And the growing up has to start with you.

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