Matrix Management

Matrix management: not a structure, a frame of mind

This is the rather striking title of an article which appeared in the Harvard Business Review in July/August 1990 – over 30 years ago.  What makes it so interesting is that we at Global Integration have also reached many of the same conclusions.

This article speaks on a topic that has re-surfaced again much more recently, and with increased urgency – exactly what is a matrix and how do you make it work?

Kevan Hall deals with the latter question in his book “Making the Matrix Work”.

This article also makes an important contribution to this question.  Written by Christopher Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal it opens with the provocative statement:

Top level managers in many of today’s leading corporations are losing control of their companies.….. The problem is that their companies are organizationally incapable of carrying out the sophisticated strategies they have developed.

The authors point out that because the world is complex, so the organizational answer must also of necessity be complex, and that the organizational answer was, and is, the matrix.  They also point out that the matrix cannot be lead or managed in the traditional way.  Many organizations found out the hard way that the standard models and techniques for managing and leading simply don’t work in this new, matrixed world.

We would also agree with their point of view that the key organizational task is not to design the structure, but to harness the capabilities within the company so that the whole organization is motivated to work collectively as it responds to the complicated and dynamic external environment.

I really like the way they capture the essence of what structure is by using an analogy from medicine.  So they maintain that:

“The formal structure describes only the organization’s basic anatomy.  Companies must also concern themselves with the organizational physiology – the systems and relationships that allow the lifeblood of information to flow through the organization”.

I covered some additional thoughts on structure in a blog post recently here (When Structure Doesn’t Help, and When it Does, John Bland,, Feb 18, 2013.)

The problem that Bartlett and Ghoshal identify, and that we have seen lived out in so many of the companies that we have worked with, is that structural change is a very blunt tool to drive the behavioural change into the organization that you want to see.   Time and again we see organizations making this same mistake – one which was clearly identified at least as early as 1990!

In our experience, we would go further and say that, on the timescales needed  by business in the 2010s, one does not lead to that other at all.

Our 4S model provides an approach to ensure that companies BOTH create the relevant structure AND also to put in place a skills programme to drive in the behavioural changes the structure requires.

So the key to making the matrix a success is:

  1. Be clear on and communicate your Strategy
  2. Define the Structure to deliver that strategy
  3. Put in place the Systems to support the strategy and structure
  4. Develop your people’s Skills so that the adopt the strategy, structure and use the systems

Source: “Matrix Management: not a structure, a frame of mind”, by Christopher A. Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal, Harvard Business Review, July 1990

If this is true (and we are sure it is) then it follows that mindset and skills training are the key to making the matrix work. See an interactive graphic of our matrix management learning path and module contents.

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