Struggling to Lead IT in a Matrix Organization?

Try building a public brain. Pull out your Post-its and Sharpies and find a blank wall. Here’s how.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

January 22, 2020

5 Min Read

If you’re an IT leader in a matrix organization, you may identify with this scenario: You call a meeting and prepare an agenda that is shared in advance. A few of the newer team members show up late without reading the agenda. They spend their time half-focused on the discussion while also checking email or Slack on their phones. You end up re-explaining key ideas and actions several times, unsure if anything is sinking in. You worry that no work will be done except by a few reliable employees.

The result of the meeting? Several of the issues you discussed in the meeting pop up anyway. You end up frustrated, your team members doggedly continue the project, and the resulting work is uninspired.

This dynamic plays out constantly in today’s workplace. IT leaders are struggling to help ad hoc groups do creative and collaborative work and to address the downsides of always-on (but rarely focused) teams. We need effective, easy-to-use options that improve team dynamics and output.

There is no shortage of productivity tools. People can choose from individual options that are described in the classic Getting Things Done, team-based options such as the now-popular GV Design Sprint process, or more comprehensive management techniques explained in Andy Grove’s High Output Management or Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive.

These are all powerful resources, and managers, especially those working in IT, need to take advantage of them. But what about simple tools for matrix management? What are some basic techniques that anyone can pick up in a few minutes and require no special training or skills?

In a world of private screens, try creating a public brain instead. Public brains are an easy way to create shared context for a team and allow them to rapidly do high-quality work. A public brain requires nothing more than Post-its, Sharpies, and a blank wall. Instead of taking notes individually, teams use a common framework that can be created, used, and removed in minutes.

My company has used this tool to great effect internally, and with dozens of government and corporate customers, from generals and executives down to soldiers and analysts. Here are four examples of public brains that we use and how they can help a team get results fast.

Public brain #1: Welcome board

What it is: A way to remember who is in the room and how they can contribute. Label four columns with specific questions, usually: name, organization, role, and a personal fact that serves as an icebreaker. Everyone in the meeting answers each question, writing them down on Post-it notes, placing them on the welcome board, and offering relevant details.

When and why to use it: When you have a diverse group of people who don’t know each other, usually at the kick-off of a new project. The welcome board replaces the “going around the room and introducing yourself” part of a meeting. That process often takes too long and doesn’t help you remember anything specific later.

Public brain #2: Why are we here?

What it is: A way to quickly get a sense of people’s expectations for a meeting. Ask everyone to write down three reasons why they are there on Post-It notes, then place them up on a wall. Once everyone is done, give the group a few minutes to reorganize the Post-its. Usually they will group like responses together, then label them to create themes. This gives you a place to start the conversation about your goals and how they align with the team’s expectations.

When and why to use it: When you are convening a group in the early stages of a project, or when a team is doing a one-off activity. It provides useful feedback to you as a leader. You get to see what the team heard, not just what you said.


Public brain #3: Ask the expert

What it is: A way to capture the models, questions, and concerns of key personnel. Come up with key questions to which you need answers, then set a 30-minute timer. The team focuses on a single person who answers these questions, plus any follow-up questions that emerge. Key insights are captured on Post-It notes and placed on an easel sheet with the expert’s name written at the top.

When and why to use it: When you need to source critical information quickly. Experts tend to derail group conversations with unnecessary detail, and love to talk for too long about their areas of interest. This allows you to focus their contribution around key topics.


Public brain #4: Impact/effort chart

What it is: A way to force a team to commit to next steps. Write down all the major ideas your team is considering, one idea per Post-It note. Draw a graph extending both up and to the right from the origin. Label the Y axis “Effort” and the X axis “Impact.” Ask the team to place each idea on this chart relative to the other ideas. Pick the top-left ideas for execution first, followed by the top-right. Consider whether any of the bottom-right or bottom-left ideas need to be carried forward, or if they can safely be eliminated without affecting your project.

When and why to use it: Toward the end of a meeting when you want to focus on implementation. This is the most important part of a meeting, when team members typically start to endlessly debate ideas. The impact/effort chart forces them to agree on relative merits as a group. The next steps appear almost obvious once this visual framework is adopted.


Managers need lots of tools to unlock performance from their teams. This is especially true for IT leaders in matrix organizations. Public brains are one way to quickly build context in a diverse group. They are practical options to strengthen relationships, gather information, collect feedback, and build consensus.


William Treseder is the Senior VP of Product at BMNT Inc., a Silicon Valley-based innovation consultancy and early-stage tech accelerator.

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Guest Commentary

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