Matrix Management

The matrix is about surfacing conflict not collaboration

At our global team meeting last week one of my colleagues used a phrase that really made me think “the matrix is about surfacing conflict not collaboration”. Many organisations introduce a matrix explicitly to improve the amount of communication and collaboration across the traditional vertical silos, usually geography and function.

In a formal matrix structure this means adding additional reporting lines to reflect “horizontal” business entities such as business units or key global processes such as supply chain. In a more informal “matrix management” way of working reporting lines remain unchanged but there are many more cross functional virtual teams and international projects that connect the organisation together.

By reflecting the needs of the horizontal and vertical in reporting relationships, or in collaboration structures, the matrix effectively forces more collaboration and makes people more pay more attention to multiple dimensions of their organisations.

At the same time, the matrix is associated with higher levels of conflict. It’s a very common objective in a matrix management workshop for people to ask how to reduce this.

Our response is that it is probably not a good idea to reduce the amount of conflict, but it is important to be able to manage it positively.

Conflict is a reflection of different perspectives and strongly held ideas about where the business should operate. The more people that are involved, the more the possibility of strongly held different views.

The more passionate you are and the more you care about the business, the more disagreement you should expect. We worry far more when we find organisations with low levels of disagreement, this probably means that it has been suppressed and that people have given up.

Of course, it’s not enough just to have conflict, we need the skills and confidence to identify and resolve disagreements when they happen. If we just suppress problems or take them off the table, then they will keep coming back and it will cause frustration and delay.

In an international context there are some particular challenges conflict

  • it happens virtually – whereas diagreements may be more evident when we consider people’s body language, or conference call we may just put our colleagues and meet and complain to the person next to us. We also typically have much less face-to-face time which we may need to resolve deep-seated conflicts. We need mechanisms to identify when conflict is happening virtually and we need a team and corporate culture that allows conflict to be expressed and resolved openly
  • it happens cross culturally – there are many cultures, particularly in Asia but including my own in the UK, that prefer to smooth over conflict in the interests of our harmony and politeness. As international managers, we need to learn the signs of conflict in other cultures and how to interpret indirect communication to get the real meaning behind

Maybe my colleague was right, maybe the real meaning of the matrix is to create more constructive conflict and prevent people just walking away from it into their own silos.

If you are experiencing more conflict when you work in a matrix, don’t be surprised, but do make sure you build the skills to resolve it positively.

How do you resolve these challenges in your organisation?

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