Matrix Management

Is a matrix organization worth the bother -the world’s leading companies think so

I was reading an article Too Many Teams, Too Many Bosses: Overcoming Matrix Madness from Gartner this week.  It blames the matrix for too many internal meetings, too much communication, collaborative overload, more conflict and ambiguity, unclear expectations and problems with coordination. It concludes with a parting thought – sometimes the matrix just isn’t worth the trouble. It is a common sentiment in articles about the matrix.

It makes you wonder why the world’s leading organizations choose to have and retain a matrix. Our own research shows that over 90% of the world’s most successful companies operate some form of matrix. The ones that don’t seem to be fairly simple companies operating within a single country or ones with a simple business model such as mineral extraction.

The reasons they operate a matrix include

  • Better collaboration – to break the silos
  • To meet the needs of global or regional customers
  • Improved business integration
  • Improved execution of global or regional projects and shared systems
  • To share resources and prevent duplication

In essence, work is becoming more horizontal, it cuts across the traditional vertical silos of function and geography and this process is being accelerated by digital transformation as digital processes inherently cut across the business and (thankfully) are no respecters of internal silos.

Some of the challenges outlined in the Gartner article are indeed potential downsides of the matrix. I was working with a client this week and some of their people were complaining about an increase in meetings to achieve alignment in their new matrix structure.

I asked them why they felt they suddenly needed to have all this discussion about alignment, and, after a period of reflection, they realised that it was because in the past they had been hopelessly misaligned and operating within discrete silos that confuse their customers. Maybe it was worth having some initial meetings to sort that out.

What the Gartner survey didn’t mention was that, in the study they quoted that found people were less clear about what was expected of them, those same people were also more engaged.

Other research shows that people in the matrix feel more listened to and trusted. People enjoy the breadth and variety of having a broader perspective of the business, and this is excellent for their career development.

We often ask people in our matrix management training – would you like to go back and work for a single boss in a single team. The overwhelming majority would not. They enjoy the complexity of the matrix, provided they have the skills to navigate it.

Indeed, people often raise many of the challenges that are mentioned in the article, none of them are insurmountable and all of them are about adapting our ways of working to a more connected environment. The solution doesn’t lie in structure and reporting lines but in how we collaborate.

We could indeed simplify our structure but then it wouldn’t reflect the complexity of our environment. Why do you think we moved to the matrix in the first place?

Yes we do need to involve more people in conversations and decision’s, but maybe that’s because we didn’t involve enough people in the past.

If the benefits of the matrix didn’t outweigh the challenges then why would the world’s leading organisations continue to use it? Instead we see the matrix now being adopted by much smaller organisations who realise that work naturally cuts across the organisation in the digital age.

It is extremely rare for an organisation to move away from the matrix. It does evolve over time and sometimes becomes simpler (thought often not). You will read occasional articles from companies who claim to have abandoned the matrix but, if you take a look at their executive teams and organisation structures, they are still multidimensional, global functions operate across geography and in multiple global product groups – it is still a matrix, they are just calling it something different.

The secret to making the matrix work is to align your behaviours, skills and culture to this more connected environment. All of the challenges in the Gartner article are familiar to us from thousands of participants on our matrix management training sessions around the world and all of them have fairly straightforward solutions.

If you’d like to find out more about how to make your matrix work, please get in touch.

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