Matrix management - making it work

Large, complex organisations such as blue chips and multinationals, and some smaller businesses as well, need an operational structure that allows their people to work across different projects and in different teams at the same time. They need a system that can accommodate multiple cross-functional, cross-business unit activities across multiple geographies.

A large project or product development process, for example, will need to draw employees from different disciplines across the organisation into a temporary assignment team without removing them from their permanent positions.

This may cut across existing management responsibilities and structures with the potential for confusion. The answer to this conundrum is to develop a matrix management structure.

What is a matrix organisation structure?

A matrix organisation structure is one where most employees have more than one reporting line. Typically, they will report to a line manager or project manager for the geographical area they’re based in, and to a functional leader who oversees regional or global responsibilities. These are often referred to as dotted line and solid line reporting respectively.

In most cases, employees in a matrix organisation are accountable for their day-to-day performance to the regional or project manager, whose authority flows horizontally across functional boundaries. They report on their overall performance to the head of their functional department, whose authority flows vertically within their department.

Advantages of the matrix structure

The four main advantages of the matrix structure are:

  • Responsiveness. Bringing functional team members into a geography helps project managers adapt to the needs and culture of a given region and learn from larger and more sophisticated regions;
  • Flexible resource pool. For specific tasks, the matrix model allows managers to draw talent into their teams from an organisation-wide pool and get the best available people at any given time. In general terms, it facilitates the horizontal flow of skills, learning and information across the whole organisation;
  • Increased utilisation. Because people in a matrix structure work on multiple projects, they work to their optimum capacity. Downtime and slow periods are minimised and the structure enables them to take on new assignments when they get less busy; and
  • Consistency. The nature of a matrix organisation requires a consistent way of working. This means ensuring that people are always clear of what managers expect of them and how the reporting structures operate. This consistent methodology also helps people make seamless transitions when they transfer between project teams and geographies.

Challenges of matrix structures

The five key challenges a matrix organisation presents are:

  • Potential conflict. People working in a matrix structure often feel their different managers are pulling them in two or more different directions (sometimes on the same issue). This can cause paralysis, inability to satisfy all parties and conflict between different managers and employees. Often, there are no clear protocols as to which manager has the ultimate authority to resolve conflicts;
  • Inflexibility. In some organisations, particularly those where decision-making procedures are unclear, everyone managing individuals within the matrix structure must be consulted. Reaching consensus and making decisions become slow processes, which is bad news when workloads are high and the pressure is on. Furthermore, matrix structures can be rigid and inflexible and this too can hinder progress in fast-moving, unpredictable environments;
  • Responsibility avoidance. People in a matrix can use their multiple reporting lines to “dump” work from one onto another. They can also exploit poor communication between their line managers to play one off against the other and avoid pulling their full weight. Over time, these behaviours can create significant anxiety and distrust;
  • Unclear authority. If a line manager is geographically remote, an individual within the matrix structure may be unclear as to who their boss is. This will affect their performance, their career development and the effectiveness of the teams they work in; and
  • Low staff morale. Unless carefully planned, implemented and managed, matrix structures can have a negative effect on staff morale. If people lose faith in the organisational model, they can become frustrated and restless. This in turn can lead to a high staff turnover.

Working in a matrix structure

If your organisation operates a matrix structure, follow these five key steps to plan your approach and make your team’s contribution (and yours) as effective as possible.

  1. Understand the roles and responsibilities of everyone else involved in the structure.
  2. Ensure all relevant parties who will be working together on a project or process sign off on their role at the planning stage. This will help reduce the number of problems that arise during the project.
  3. Establish explicit time allocation, decision-making and conflict resolution processes for you and your team. This will reduce the time you spend dealing with unproductive issues.
  4. Share learnings across functional teams. This will prevent people from feeling isolated and promote team spirit.
  5. Explore and discuss opportunities to reshuffle roles in the project when it’s appropriate. This will keep people fresh, benefit the project and help employees grow within the organisation.

Conclusion

Matrix organisation structures enable large and complex organisations to pull together teams from multiple functions and geographies for major projects. Planned well, they maximise efficiency, optimise resource management and enhance career development. However, they’re not without their challenges, so you’ll need to plan your approach to work effectively in a matrix structure.

To read the next article titled 'Managing teams across jurisdictions and cultures' click here.
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