Matrix management: dealing with a crisis

Working at nightThe essence of matrix management lies in the balance of power between the vertical (usually functions and geography) and the horizontal (business units, supply chains or other entities that cut across the organization) if we could choose one of these to be permanently in charge, we wouldn’t need a matrix.

However, there are some compelling issues where an organization needs to be able to default to a correct answer quickly, for example:

  • when safety might be compromised;
  • in a consumer recall or other crisis;
  • where the legal or regulatory risk is very high;
  • where important central policies are challenged.

In these cases, however, authority to act needs to fall very quickly to the people best placed to lead a solution.

This can be challenging for service functions such as human resources or legal. For much of the time they act as a service to the business line, but we shouldn’t forget that sometimes they are also agents of control for the organization as a whole.

As an example, HR may act as a service to the business in attracting the best talent, but if an individual, manager makes a recruitment decision which may have legal or ethical consequences, HR needs to stand in and say “no”. There should be no question about who has the final say.

Some obligations, such as safety, should be held by all legs of the matrix, and are in many organizations.

The matrix organization structure has been criticised for leading to a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities, but this is not the fault of the structure, it’s a lack of thinking on how the structure operates. There are no excuses for not having clear responsibility for critical business issues, irrespective of your structure.

There are many times when having multiple reporting lines and stakeholders can lead to better and more considered decisions. Unfortunately, this is often at the expense of speed, and in a crisis speed may be more important.

What are the critical issues in your organization where authority and accountability have to be clear?

Is there a protocol in your matrix management approach that enables this to happen quickly?

If not, contact us to find out about our ‘PickApart’ process and how we can help you clarify who does what in matrix reporting.

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