Matrix Management

Too many teams in matrix organizations

One of the most revelatory insights for our participants in matrix organizations is when we share that in complex matrix organizations, only a few types of work are best performed by teams[i].

Indeed corralling people to work in teams when the outcome required doesn’t suit this way of working can sometimes even be dangerous. One extensive study[ii] of the National Health Service, the biggest employer in the UK, found that being in a ‘faux-team’ (defined as not answering ‘yes’ to all three criteria below) led to greater number of errors, job stress, job injury and harassment and violence from patients than being in no team at all.  The only time a team led to better outcomes was if they answered ‘yes’ to all three of the following criteria:

  1. Does your team have clear objectives?
  2. Do you have to work closely together to achieve these objectives?
  3. Do you meet regularly to review your team effectiveness and how it could be improved?

Of course real teams in a matrix organization have the added challenge of having to be able to say ‘yes’ to all those criteria across distance, cultures and time-zones.

So when do teams help in a matrix organization and when do they get in the way? Regular readers may be familiar with our concept of ‘star & spaghetti’ – but a quick recap for those that aren’t:

We like to think of teams as a pile of spaghetti–work and communication is very tangled up and interdependent.  True teamwork in a matrix organization is about a small group of people with different capabilities coming together to create a truly collaborative output. This is great if it is really needed, such as a cross functional problem-solving group working together to launch a new product.  However it is a very time intensive and expensive way of getting things done in a matrix organization, often requiring frequent meetings, travel and collective decision-making.

In many cases, communication and co-operation in a matrix organization can be better organised in a simpler hub and spoke model (we call it a star group); with a manager in the centre co-ordinating the relatively distinct work of individuals in a group so as to reach a common goal. This saves an awful lot of time in matrix organizations in by cutting out team meetings, emails and committee groups hearing about what others are up to – 99% of the time with little value added to the completion of your own tasks and goals.  Sales people, for example, are often best collected as a ‘star group’, informally sharing ideas through virtual networks, but not often required to actively collaborate together.

As well as teams and groups, in a matrix or complex organization we also need to master working through our wider communities and networks to get things done – with the help of technology such as Slack, WebEx, Skype for Business and many others.


[i] Allen, N. & Hecht, T. (2004) The ‘romance of teams’: Toward an understanding of its psychological underpinnings and implications, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 77, 439-461.

[ii] West, M. & Markiewicz, L. (2006) Building team-based working: a practical guide to organizational transformation. WileyBlackwell.

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