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Matrix management – is it right for you?

Matrix management is a common way of managing multiple priorities and combining capabilities efficiently in organisations. It is seen in project organisations where individuals report into a home group or “practice” and to one or more projects; in corporate services where business partner roles report into both a function and customer organisation; and in global or regional organisations where units report into a country head and a global function.

Giving individuals a secondary reporting line can seem easy – just add a dotted line on the organisation chart – but it is difficult in practice. How do you make sure your dotted lines aren’t broken lines: that is, that there is a true management relationship? And if they are broken, what can you do to fix them?

These questions are not easy to answer. It’s not surprising that we often see matrix relationships that aren’t working effectively, whether it’s business partner teams working to their customers’ agenda – to the detriment of corporate policy – or operational units building their own capability rather than taking advantage of the matrix function to access and share corporate resources.

Why is managing a matrix so difficult?

One reason a matrix is hard to manage is that it breaks the accountability chain – there is no longer a single, clear line of accountability down the organisation. An increased number of formal relationships have to be navigated.

The matrix also makes more demands on your staff. There is a greater potential for conflicts over priorities, so to avoid the organisation slowing to a halt, effective prioritisation and conflict resolution needs to take place locally. That means that individuals need to engage in “adult to adult” behaviours, and can’t rely on their line managers to manage their relationships with other parts of the organisation. A shared sense of direction and values at all levels is also needed to form a basis for negotiation and conflict resolution, and this is not always easy to achieve.

What’s needed to make a matrix structure work?

Making matrix relationships work requires different leadership and management practices – it’s much more than a structural decision.

Leaders must set a clear direction to allow managers to prioritise and resolve conflict without always escalating. They must also “role-model” the team building and communication skills, and where necessary, arbitrate fairly and resolve issues. In addition, they need to ensure that everyone has a clear understanding of who is accountable for what, with appropriate governance structures to resolve tensions.

Performance management systems must align measures and rewards to the broader organisational agenda. These measures and rewards must reflect objectives set through both matrix reporting lines, and promote the required behaviours on the part of both those managing and those being managed. Finally, staff must be allowed to develop the skills and behaviours necessary to work in an organisational environment which may feel very different from the one they are used to.

When is it right to use a matrix structure – and when isn’t it?

A matrix structure can be highly beneficial when there’s a strong need to combine capabilities for market advantage, share resources efficiently, or retain flexibility to recombine resources in the face of uncertainty.

However, we’ve seen matrix solutions used when they are less appropriate. For example, one organisation had introduced matrix management as a “sop” to certain stakeholder interests during an organisation design process. There was a clear imperative to introduce greater standardisation and sharing, but the tough decision to centralise was not taken. This kind of mistake can result in years of slow progress.

Given the difficulties discussed above, we believe that any organisation should think carefully before introducing matrix relationships. Key questions to ask are:

  • Is there a clear imperative for them?

  • Are the supporting leadership and management practices in place, or can they be created quickly?

If the answer to either of these questions is not an unequivocal “yes”, you should reconsider any plans to introduce a matrix and look for other ways of improving your organisation’s effectiveness.

To learn more about matrix management, please contact us now.