Did Ed dismantle the matrix?

hand and lego brickI read a recent article on Ed Whitacre and his time at  AT&T Inc. and General Motors Co., described as “giants that would not be what they are today had he not been their CEO.”

According to the article:

“His biggest task at GM was tearing down the “matrix management” system that basically skirted accountability. Whitacre restored a traditional corporate structure, with clear reporting lines, and strengthened the relationships between senior management and rank-and-file workers, including the union.”

It’s quite common to blame the matrix for a lack of accountability but the structure doesn’t cause this, it’s the way we operate within it that causes problems. With complex products such as cars, how can there be one single person who’s accountable for everything unless they are at such a senior level that accountability becomes quite divorced from day to day activity.

At some level, of course, the CEO is accountable for everything but unless they are a terrible micromanager, they can’t possibly be supervising the detail. We need to have complex webs of accountability with clarity for our own role within that, but also a feeling of engagement with the overall success of the project.

Too often accountability is something that happens retrospectively after a problem. Too often it’s a search for blame rather than a reason to celebrating success.

So did Ed really dismantle the matrix? If we take a look at the executive officers of GM today we find reporting to the chairman and CEO

  • People who look after geography, such as the President, South America
  • People who lead global functions –  GMs for Global Product Development, Global Communications and Public Policy, Chief Tax Officer, Global Human Resources, General Counsel, Chief Accounting Officer and Controller and Chief Information Officer. These people manage people who sit within geographies, so presumably some of their people are matrixed.
  • People who look after brands that cut across the geography, such as Brand GM Vice President, Global Cadillac. They must have matrix reporting lines to people who support the brand in the different functions and geographies
  • We even have a ‘Double hat’ role – GM Vice President, Global Manufacturing, and President, International Operations, who is both leading a vertical geographic organization and the horizontal manufacturing organization that cuts across the world.
  • A recent GM announcement suggested they need to strengthen the role of the horizontal brand organizations that cut across the world so it is likely that the matrix will become even more significant in the way GM organises.

Many organizations talk about ‘dismantling the matrix’.  In fact they almost never do. They often evolve their structure to focus on where it adds real value – which is part of the secret of matrix success.

If a simpler, functional organization could deliver the work we need doing in this more complex environment, then most companies would use it, but the reality is that these simple silo-based structures are just not up to the complexity of running a global organization.

We do ourselves no favours by criticising structure and claiming we abandoned it. We should really just accept that we need to make it work and develop the skills and ways of working that enable it to be successful.

Why not…?


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