Matrix Management

Which cultures find it hard to implement matrix management

I was asked a good question by a potential client this week – is there a particular national or corporate culture that makes the matrix more difficult to operate?

From the academic research and also our own practice, the answer is pretty clear. If you have either a national culture or a corporate culture that is strongly hierarchical or predisposed to central control then this makes the matrix slower and more challenging to implement .

The reasons for this are pretty easy to imagine.

If you have more than one boss, work on multiple teams and with multiple stakeholders and you don’t have the ability to challenge the hierarchy then resolving conflicts becomes very difficult. Either the individuals choose not to address competing goals or conflicts or they have to escalate everything for resolution. Both of these responses lead to delay and frustration.

I ran a matrix workshop a few years ago for a public affairs function in a pharmaceutical company in a hierarchical part of eastern Europe. The individuals had previously reported to their country managers in the region and now had a dotted line to country manager and a solid line to a functional leader in the USA. We gave them a number of mini case studies to discuss to see how they would deal with a situation where their goals from the function completed or conflicted with their goals from the country.

We expected them to take around 30 minutes to come up with answers to these situations but in fact every group had finished within 5 minutes. When we asked them what they would do every single one answered to every case “we would refer it to the country manager for a final decision”. The new functional manager was surprised, we weren’t having seen it many times before .

If your corporate culture is very centralised then this could also cause implementation challenges . The matrix is designed to enable flexibility between, for example, the global and local or the function and the business unit. If we make one or more of these lines rigid, then we create a lack of flexibility at the point where these lines intersect that can only really be resolved through escalation.

This is also risk after implementing a matrix. Each newly created entity, which might be geographic, a business unit, function, technology group etc.. feels it needs to pursue its own goals, create common initiatives, processes and ways of working. Adding all of these together can create a strong drift towards centralisation (although with multiple centres) which can cause a lack of autonomy further down the matrix.

I worked with an aerospace manufacturing organisation in the USA some years ago and their CEO proudly told me “our culture is execute, or escalate”. Whilst it’s a catchy phrase, there are always implications. I asked him “do you get a lot of escalation”. he answered “yes, a lot, it’s a real problem”!

If your culture is either very hierarchical or centralised expect the introduction of a matrix to be more challenging. That is not to say it’s not possible but it will take longer and you will need a sustained effort to move away from some of the aspects of your legacy culture to create more empowerment in your middle management population to enable them to manage the dynamics of the matrix without escalation.

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