Matrix Management

Anarchy or flexibility – which wins out in a matrix?

The advantages and problems associated with matrix organizations are well-versed – but overall do the benefits outweigh the challenges? Researchers in South Africa were keen to answer this question. Despite looking out for issues such as: tendencies towards anarchy, power struggles, decision strangulation, unclear roles and excessive overhead costs, they found that the respondents rated the effect of the positive characteristics of a matrix on project success considerably higher than they rated the negative ones.

The researchers surveyed project managers, functional managers team members and C-Suite across a range of government, mining, engineering and construction industries in South Africa[i].

The advantages of the matrix that they noted from the academic literature were:

  • Flexibility and quick adaption to changing market and technical requirements
  • Effective resource allocation
  • Increased formal lateral communication
  • Flexible use of human resources

The problems they identified as being typically associated with the matrix were:

  • Tendencies toward anarchy
  • Power struggles
  • Collapse during economic crises
  • Excessive overhead costs
  • Decision strangulation
  • Disruptive conflict
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities
  • Functional managers often have to double up as project managers (the ‘two hat problem’)

Recognize any of these? We have to admit we haven’t seen much all out ‘anarchy’ in our clients, but the others look pretty familiar.

However contrary to the researchers‘ expectations, ‘unclear reporting structure’ was the only negative element that showed a statistically significant negative correlation with matrix project success. There was no significant correlation between project failure and unclear responsibilities, higher overhead costs, power struggles, delayed decision-making, conflict or becoming anarchic.

On the other hand, they found statistically significant positive corerlations between all of the positive matrix characteristics and both overall team performance and project success.

In our work with participants in matrix organizations all over the world, we tend to hear the complaints much louder and more frequently than the positives – to some extent that is human nature. However it is worth stopping and reminding ourselves of those positives: the flexibility, the ability to quickly adapt, the positive communication across silos and the improved performance to both our teams and the project outcomes.

Remembering these benefits will help us maintain a positive outlook and focus, even when the tendencies towards power struggles and conflict kick in.

[i] Schnetler, R., Steyn, H., & van Staden, P.J.. (2015). Characteristics of matrix structures, and their effects on project success. South African Journal of Industrial Engineering26(1), 11-26.


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