In a matrix organization the structure incorporates multiple dimensions – usually including the business unit, the function and the geography – sometimes more.rsz_shutterstock_162687866

Each of these entities has their own agendas and priorities and generates their own initiatives. In the early stages of a matrix, each of them usually trying to clarify its role and contribution and it is common for the introduction of a matrix structure to be accompanied by a period of centralization in some (usually all) of the dimensions at the same time.

Viewed from the individuals at the top of the business dimensions it’s completely reasonable. They may only have one or two initiatives that they are trying to drive throughout the global business. Unfortunately so does everyone else.

A global business with 8 functions, 6 regions and 4 business units, each generating 2 initiatives per year creates 36 initiatives per year.

Each of these requires work and the management of change. Many of them require people to participate in projects and change processes or ways of working.

When you come down to individual country organizations (even assuming they don’t have initiatives of their own at country level) they would need to service 3 new global initiatives per month. They often do not have the resources to cope with this level of change. If they try to push back, they risk the annoyance of the senior leaders behind the initiative.

Taken globally these initiatives usually make sense and are well justified, it’s not hard to put together a good return on investment argument when you are implementing globally. However, what is often missed in these calculations is an understanding of the cost and disruption all these initiatives cause – sometimes called “initiative overload”.

These initiatives also compete for attention and resources and cause challenges for prioritization – which do I do first or put most effort into in my market? Can I ignore any of them because of local priorities?

It seems we need some way to control the proliferation of initiatives. We can do this either top down or bottom up.

Top down would involve some kind of prioritization or initiative filtering group to make sure we are not creating so many central initiatives that the local operations cannot cope. This group could also play a useful part in making sure that the key messages and initiatives are aligned and scheduled sensibly (most initiatives seem to be launched in January).  Initiatives should be accompanied by a clear costing of not only the benefits but the implementation costs, including any increase in complexity and change for the business.

Some element of bottom up process may be necessary too, as often the proliferation of initiatives is not visible at the top of the organization. It’s only when they come together at the local level that it becomes evident that they conflict, or compete, for limited resource and attention. Maybe a group of people representing local markets could give an input to the central prioritization process or identify things the central group missed.

It may be up to local operations initially to raise this issue and make visible the large number of initiatives they are being asked to support and to quantify the impact of this – other parts of the organization may not realize the scale of the problem.

Without these processes, prioritization will de facto happen at the local market level based on what people locally believe to be important. It will also create pressure on local markets and distract them from their local priorities – that might be OK but at least we should know we are doing it!

About the author:

Kevan Hall Kevan Hall is a CEO, author, speaker and trainer in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is the author of "Speed Lead - faster, simpler ways to manage people, projects and teams in complex companies, "Making the Matrix work - how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity", and the "Life in a Matrix" podcasts, videos, cartoons and blog. He is CEO and founder of Global Integration. Company profile: .

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