The Matrix Wars

| By TMA World


What is a matrix organization?  As many know, it is a structure aimed at creating greater organizational agility by breaking down business silos (e.g. functions) and enabling resources (e.g. people and knowledge) to be brought together to synergize in project teams. 

An employee (in a simple two dimensional matrix like function and project) will have two reporting relationships: a functional manager and a project manager.  That is the simple case, but in reality matrices can be very complex with multiple dimensions and reporting lines; some matrix organizations have matrices within matrices.  Although matrix organizations have been with us for decades, they are still controversial.   

A March 2016 Harvard Business Review article (‘Making Matrix Organizations Actually Work’ by Herman Vantrappen and Frederic Wirtz) lines up two opposing forces in the matrix wars: those who love-to-hate the matrix, and those who hate-to-love the matrix.  The Love-to-Hate group argues that a matrix structure slows down decision making and makes an impenetrable mess of accountabilities.  Many would agree!  The Hate-to-Love group see it more as a necessary evil in large, complex organizations that require a high degree of horizontal coordination if they are to be agile in rapidly changing markets.  Again, many would agree!

To achieve lateral coordination, Vantrappen and Wirtz argue there are basically two approaches: hard-wiring and soft-wiring.  A matrix structure is an example of hard-wiring.  Soft-wiring is more informal, organic, and voluntary.  In my view, we could consider emergent collaboration in social networks as an example of soft-wiring. 
Those who love-to-hate the matrix only see the need for soft-wiring; whenever there is a need for lateral coordination, the argument goes, relevant managers will find each other.  A matrix adds a level of complexity that isn’t needed.

To make a matrix work, Vantrappen and Wirtz have identified five useful guidelines:

Adopt when purposeful
Never choose a matrix design unless it makes absolute sense.  Only use it when:
1. Middle managers from different divisions/units/teams have an important business need that requires them to coordinate daily.
2. The necessary lateral coordination cannot be accomplished through soft-wiring options.

Keep intrinsic conflict out
Ensure the matrix dimensions have every reason to collaborate rather than compete.  When a matrix has region and function dimensions there is typically less conflict than with region and product dimensions.  In the former case, the dimensions have more complementary roles and objectives.  Region and product dimensions with P&L responsibilities must manage the same factors like HR and price levels – conflict is intrinsic.

Limit breadth and depth
Try to limit matrix dimensions to two, e.g. product and function.  With each added dimension, complexity is intensified and people become overwhelmed and consequently disengaged.  Also don’t create ‘nested’ matrices, i.e. matrices within matrices.  Research has shown that agile companies outperform others.  Simplification supports agility; complexity supports increased confusion and wasted time. 

Don’t pretend
Don’t create messiness by being half-hearted.  For example, all reporting lines should be solid, not dotted.  Dotted lines downgrade a relationship, and so when activities like performance appraisals and objective setting are required, the dotted line manager will typically only play a superficial or even a non-role. If you (dotted line manager) have little influence on how I am assessed, why should I pay attention to you?  This hurts the credibility of the matrix.

Escalate by exception only
An effective matrix pushes decisions about operations downward in a controlled way.  When decisions and conflict management are pushed up, a great deal of time and effort (of expensive resources) are wasted.  An efficient matrix requires distributed accountability and discipline; those at higher levels should refuse to be drawn into relatively minor decisions and disputes.  Those at lower levels need to acquire the discipline and mindsets needed for side-by-side problem solving.

Think about your own matrix and where you could make a positive difference?
1. Our matrix has a legitimate purpose
2. Our matrix dimensions are compatible rather than competitive
3. Our matrix is as simple as possible
4. Our matrix relationships are solid, not dotted 
5. Our matrix levels take care of their own disagreements

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