Monday, November 12, 2012

Life in the matrix

S1C04 - Matrix Management by My 25 Percent
S1C04 - Matrix Management,
a photo by 
My 25 Percent on Flickr.
Which is better - a solid line of accountability or that in combination with several dotted lines?  Welcome to the world of matrix management, an organizational phenomenon of the 1970's that is causing consternation in many businesses today.

The goal of matrix organizations was (and still is) to provide channels whereby technical expertise can be developed and shared across functional boundaries within an organization.  Project teams that spanned company-wide could operate with the technical champions leading the charge, with functional representatives on the team focused on the application of the concepts in the field.  

Matrix management structure in the real world, however, is accompanied by a few significant shortcomings:

  • Multiple "experts" with dotted line authority create a top-heavy and costly management structure to sustain.
  • Functional leaders have numerous priorities thrown at them, coming from their solid line bosses and the various dotted line leaders that impact their area.  They find it difficult, sometimes impossible to fulfill the expectations of all of the managers.
The culture within a firm, specifically its effectiveness in communication, can contribute to the success - or resounding failure - of a matrix structure.  Anne Field of Harvard Business Publishing Newsletters writes, 

"Communication problems aren't unusual in matrixed organizations. In fact, according to many executives and management experts, they're more the rule than the exception. When employees and managers with interdependent needs work collaboratively, often in teams, complex and awkward situations are bound to result. What's more, thanks to the convoluted, often ambiguous chains of command in these organizations, determining just who is accountable to who can become pretty murky, resulting in everything from misunderstandings and loss of trust to failed projects and lowered productivity. "

If your company operates with a matrix and it's creating problems, the first place to look for improvement is in the rules for engagement in the communication process.  Individuals with technical expertise serving the dotted line roles in the matrix organization may need development in relationship building skills.  And the functional leaders may be well served by a process through which competing assignments from their solid line and dotted line accountabilities can be prioritized effectively.

1 comment:

Lynn Marie Caissie said...

A matrix sure can be a difficult environment to work in, with its competing leadership and project priorities. It also offers access to different streams of power, visibility and opportunity.

Organizations that move toward or away from a style are in fact attempting to rearrange their focus to ensure everyone is looking in the same direction: same vision, same problem to solve, etc. The trick for leaders is to remember that focusing in one direction might take away from problems surging in another.

And the best intel comes from people and communication, regardless of the type of structure your organization adopts.

My 2¢