How to Improve the Structure and Simplicity of your Matrix Organization

| By TMA World

Those of us in the business of helping businesses be more competitive are always trying to invent: new models, new perspectives, new processes, and new practices.  This is usually what companies pay us to do.  If our virtual and face-to-face learning and development sessions were to contain “old stuff” (which they don’t by the way), we might be thought to have slipped off the cutting edge.  Would that be fair?

I don’t think so.

Matrix organization management

Recently, I was asked to write another blog post about matrix organizations.  As I prepared to write, I looked at some old files and a favorite article jumped out at me (Matrix Management: Not a Structure, a Frame of Mind by Christopher A. Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal in the Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1990).  Their insights are worth revisiting (or visiting for the first time).

Barlett and Ghoshal identified increased complexity and change as major environmental challenges for organizations.  Managers came to realize that they needed to manage complexity rather than eliminate it – an impossible task.  Strategies became more complex, and so did the organizational structures to execute them.  Managers turned to matrix structures to manage the different, and sometimes conflicting needs, of functions, products, and geographies.  In a highly complex and turbulent environment the overriding goal became one of increasing organizational agility (which remains an aspiration rather than reality).

The main problem according to Barlett and Ghoshal was that companies defined their organizational objectives in purely structural terms.  The authors argue that “the formal structure describes only the organization’s anatomy.  Companies must also concern themselves with organizational physiology – the systems and relationships that allow the lifeblood of information to flow through the organization.  They also need to develop a healthy organizational psychology – the shared norms, values, and beliefs that shape the way individual managers think and act.”

The typical process of attending to anatomy, physiology, and then psychology should be reversed.  We need to begin with norms, values and beliefs (psychology – what some might call organizational culture), then reinforce them by enriching and clarifying communication and decision processes (physiology), and then consolidate progress by changes in formal structure (anatomy). 

Barlett and Ghoshal found that companies that addressed the organizational psychology most effectively had following characteristics:

1. They developed and communicated a clear, continuous, and consistent corporate vision.    

2. They effectively managed human resource tools (e.g. recruitment and selection, training and development, and career-path management) to broaden individual perspectives and to develop identification with corporate goals.

One senior executive said to Barlett and Ghoshal, “The challenge is not so much to build a matrix structure as it is to create a matrix in the minds of our managers.”  While I agree, I think only talking of a matrix mind in relation to managers is too limiting. An effective matrix organization is the result of many people collaborating across vertical and horizontal boundaries. Managers cannot command and control a matrix; they must rely on all participants having a matrix mindset and practicing self-leadership.  But what would a matrix mindset look like?  The two researchers didn’t address this in their paper, but my take on this is as follows:

First, a mindset is a set of beliefs or ways of thinking that determine our behavior and worldview.  There are basically two types:

Open: Considers new ideas and proposals, even when they might be counter-intuitive or seem to work against our own needs and interests.  To ‘consider’ is different to ‘accept’.  Someone with an open mindset will advocate for their needs and interests, while recognizing there might be different options for accommodating differences.  An open mindset values innovation and adaptability.

Closed: This mindset, obviously, is the opposite to open.  Someone with this mindset only wants to be perceived as ‘right’.  They will reject ideas without consideration, and will only look at information supportive of their views.

A matrix mindset

A matrix mindset is of the open type, and in our view contains four major elements: Accountability, Learning, Adaptability, and Breadth:

Accountability: I am responsible for overcoming any self-imposed limiting beliefs, (e.g. negativity, cynicism, I can’t/won’t).  I don’t passively wait to be empowered or for everything to become clear in the matrix.  I take accountability for my personal performance, and the overall success of the matrix.

Learning: I accept the need for ongoing personal growth and development.  Working in a matrix organization is not easy and requires continuous formal and informal learning. I am open to learning from anyone, at any time, and from anywhere.

Adaptability: I commit to helping myself and others on a daily basis to meet the challenges of matrix working.  I counter matrix volatility with vision, uncertainty with clarity, complexity with understanding, and ambiguity with agility and mental toughness.

Breadth: I understand that to be successful in a matrix, I must recognize and take into account the interests and needs of multiple stakeholders.  My primary goal, however, is always to create optimal value for the organization from the diversity of skills and knowledge, perspectives and approaches within a matrix.


One of the mistakes managers make is to tinker with a complex matrix structure by adding more structure (anatomy).  I don’t think you can make an athlete faster and more agile by adding or reconfiguring bones.  Strengthening an athlete’s physiology (e.g. muscles) can be very beneficial, but that’s not enough as many athletes and coaches have found out.  Anatomy and physiology are necessary, but to make a champion they need to powered with a winning mindset (psychology).  It’s the same with a matrix.

For more information on matrix working, download our free eBook. Click here for details.

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