Matrix Management

One sure-fire way to avoid matrix management

I was talking to some HR people in tech start-ups in California recently and they told me that, as organisations start to scale up and become more complex, they regularly hear from engineers who are frustrated. These engineers don’t wish to be “corporate” and threaten to leave to avoid the increasing complexity.

At the same time, these ambitious engineers wanted to be part of the next big thing. They were all searching for the goldmine of working for the next Google or Apple.

However, the only way to avoid business complexity is to be unsuccessful. We only grow if we are successful and that success earns us the right to have more complicated problems. It’s much easier to get things done in a small focused team that in a large organisation with multiple priorities.

Similarly start to work more across functions, business units and geography we start to experience matrix management. It is more complex but it is the style of management and collaboration is required to succeed and move onto the next stage.

So my sure-fire way to avoid matrix management is to join an unsuccessful company.

A recent Gallup survey for McKinsey found that around 80% of people that they said made were in some form of matrix. The matrix is now the structure of choice for the vast majority of leading organisations and the matrix is just a reflection of internal and external complexity.

So our simplicity-focused engineers can’t have it both ways. They can either avoid complexity or they can have huge business success – it’s unlikely they will experience both.

This approach is also indicative of a certain mindset – I can only succeed if I control the resources and know the people involved. An alternative is to see more complex business as an opportunity, the chance to innovate at scale and deliver significant change around the world. You can’t do this by working on your own.

There may well be some people who are more suited to working in smaller organisations and others who thrive with more complexity. I’m not against people self-selecting into whichever they prefer, in fact I think that’s healthy for everyone concerned.

Some of the HR people I spoke to were looking forward to using this insight the next time they were approached by an engineer looking to leave in search of more simplicity. “I guess you are looking to join somewhere unsuccessful then?”

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