Puzzling over the hidden matrix

I’ve been puzzling over a matrix organisation again.  (See my earlier blog Matrix structures: the pessimism advantage) Talking about a matrix seems to elicit the Marmite response – love it or hate it.  Apparently whether you love or hate Marmite is down to your genes.  I wonder if the same can be said for a matrix organisation?

Marmite has an Australian equivalent, Vegemite, and they’re similar but different. That’s true for matrix organisations too.  There are similar but different ones.  I found a useful definition of terms on this:

Matrix  Any organizational structure in which the project manager shares responsibility with the functional managers for assigning priorities and for directing the work of individuals assigned to the project.

Balanced matrix   A matrix structure in which the project manager and functional managers share roughly equal authority over the project. The project manager decides what needs to be done; functional managers are concerned with how it will be accomplished.

Strong matrix  A matrix structure in which the project manager has primary control over project activities and functional managers support project work.

Weak matrix  A matrix structure in which functional managers have primary control over project activities and the project manager coordinates project work.

A formal matrix organisation of the type defined above is usually shown on an organisation chart as two dimensions – vertical and horizontal – with, for example, function or product on the vertical axis and project or geography on the horizontal.   The intended purpose of this dual reporting is to increase lateral co-ordination at the levels below the leadership team.

Nicolay Worren in a 2012 blog asserts that ‘When you examine a particular firm more carefully, however, you usually don’t find that people report to more than one boss (formally), although they of course may work for multiple managers in a variety of different roles. Yet this [reporting to more than one boss] was the defining feature of the matrix organization when it was first conceived.’

(If you feel so inclined, you can take a quiz testing your knowledge of matrix structures – which could feel rather similar to taking a blind Marmite/Vegemite test).

What that list of types of matrix doesn’t show is one which I, like Nicolay Worren, think is the most common – the ‘hidden matrix’ as he calls it:  ‘By that I mean governance processes and authority relationships that cross the formal units, but which are not shown on the official organization chart (and that are usually not deliberate)’.

In the Marmite/Vegemite test, the idea is that there’s a ‘winner’.  You like Marmite more than Vegemite or vice versa.  You’d think that this form of competition should not feature in a formal matrix organisation in which one-person reports to two ‘equal’ managers.   But  in practice people favour a hidden matrix (where they are working for, not reporting to, multiple managers) over a formal one because they favour whatever will allow them to get their work done in order to meet performance objectives.  Often the hidden matrix develops as a sensible workaround to a faulty formal structure whether it’s matrix or another structural form.

Many organisations now comprise several dimensions, for example:  functions, projects, geographies, and sectors (industry or product or service).  Add in governance systems and then add in an element that requires collaboration with a completely different organisation if the product/service is to be successful delivered and you have six dimensions to structure. How can these be structured?  Could they, for example, be structured as a formal matrix, like a mathematical one of rows and columns?

In this multi-dimensional organisation it is inevitable that the hidden matrix will be hard at work, aiming to combat some of the shortcomings of any formal organisation structure.  However, a hidden matrix also has shortcomings.

Worren outlines three difficulties with the hidden matrix:

  • It creates a difficult role for the middle manager.
  • It makes it difficult for top executives to assign real accountability to a sub-unit.
  • It introduces a conflict of interest, or a goal conflict.

These are almost identical difficulties to those identified in a formal matrix (one person reporting to two managers).   A research paper identifies multiple negative issues:

‘… the risks of loyalty conflicts and unclear accountabilities; and localised claims to authority (authority bias) and decisions and actions taken in isolation lead to the risk of poor decision-making. Overlaps in responsibility and authority can result in power struggles and conflict, leading to the risk of slow response time. Preoccupation with sectional interests and infighting can result in a tendency toward anarchy, leading to the risk of control problems. Dual reporting, role ambiguity and conflict, and competing objectives and priorities can lead to personnel issues, such as the risk of staff stress and turnover.’

My current puzzle is to do with multi-dimensional organisations.  I’m puzzling over  how to develop a formal structure and whether the ‘hidden matrix’ can emerge/be visible within a formal structure,  in a way that people understand, that marries the hidden matrix with the formal structure and that makes work more efficient, effective and enjoyable in practice.

This would not be such an issue if people were less interested in the visual organisation chart and more interested in enabling work to get done effectively and efficiently.   We could show organisational relationships, work flows, and interactions via network mapping or similar systems maps and then potentially adjust workflows and interactions in response to what we see.  However, the current reality is that the majority of people cling to the idea that they need an organisation chart and that changing the chart will solve organisational issues.

That tendency aside, assuming that a formal organisation cannot be structured easily from the multi-dimensions and that the hidden matrix organization, inherent in any formal organization structure brings problems and risks, what can be done to make the hidden matrix visible, and the formal organization more accommodating of the matrix within it?

In the case I am working on, I’m going to recommend we do six things:

  1. Brokering conversations about the attributes of the hidden matrix and the relationship of it to the current organisation structure
  2. Developing the positive attributes of the hidden matrix
  3. Minimizing the negative attributes of the hidden matrix
  4. Assessing ways of making the hidden matrix visible
  5. Encouraging people to stop looking at, then changing, organisation charts i.e. reporting lines as the sole means of solving issues
  6. Identifying and then reporting on measures of organizational structure performance

Hidden matrix structures are here whether you love them or hate them. We’re not looking for a winner but for an ability to work with, what two researchers called the paradoxes of a matrix:

  • increased frequency of lateral communication vs ambiguity over roles, responsibility, and conflict between functional managers and project managers;
  • improved motivation and commitment vs heightened conflict among employees; and
  • high ability to process information vs decision strangulation and slow response times.

How would you approach making the hidden matrix visible in order to make a formal organisation structure more efficient, effective and enjoyable?  Let me know

Image: Antony Gormley, Matrix II


Matrix structures: the pessimism advantage

Matrix oganisations have been loved and hated in varying proportions over the years.  They are problematic because their key feature, involves managers in two reporting lines: ‘vertically’ often along functional lines and also ‘horizontally’ (laterally) along project, product, client or geography lines.   The intended purpose of this dual reporting is to increase lateral co-ordination at the levels below the leadership team.

However, Nigel Nicholson, in How Hardwired is Human Behaviour? noted that: ‘[Matrix management] has proved to be one of the most difficult and least successful organizational forms. The reason?  Evolutionary psychologists contend that matrix forms are inherently unstable due to the conflicting pulls toward too many centers of gravity. People are instinctively drawn toward commitment to one community at a time, usually the one that is closer and more familiar to them. Thus, when a modern businessperson is asked to report both to her regional boss and to a product manager, she is typically drawn to the regional boss because he is physically closer to where the employee works and to what she knows best. Similarly, when a manager “belongs” to a function and a project, her allegiance to the function – her primary assignment – usually prevails. The dual loyalties required by matrix management are difficult to sustain in the long term.’

Because the idea of working as a matrix organisation is gaining ground in some work I am doing, I’ve just re-read the HBR 1990 article Bartlett and Ghoshal article Matrix Management: Not a Structure, a Frame of Mind Surely the date is wrong?  It could have appeared in this month’s HBR and would have been just as welcome and informative.  There’s no aging in the statement: ‘Today the most successful companies are those where top executives recognize the need to manage the new environmental and competitive demands by focusing less on the quest for an ideal structure and more on developing the abilities, behavior, and performance of individual managers.  Change succeeds only when those assigned to the new transnational and interdependent tasks understand the overall goals and are dedicated to achieving them.’

Continuing with HBR, the more recent, 2016, Vantrappen and Wirtz article Making Matrix Organizations Actually Work says much the same thing.  That in order to achieve good lateral co-ordination you need soft wiring and hard wiring.  Bartlett and Ghoshal (1990) describe this as the formal structure (basic anatomy) together with the soft elements of ‘organizational physiology—the systems and relationships that allow the lifeblood of information to flow through the organization, and a healthy organizational psychology—the shared norms, values, and beliefs that shape the way individual managers think and act.’

‘Actually work’ is a phrase associated with a classic book on matrix organisations.  Jay Galbraith, in his book Designing Matrix Organizations That Actually Work maintains that they do.   Phanish Puranam, writing an obituary of Galbraith, who died in 2014, recalls how Galbraith ‘laid out the problems with the pessimistic rhetoric about matrix structures (“utter nonsense!”), and how the label itself was being bandied about without any precision.’

Now, our organisational challenge is to make the matrix organisation idea ‘actually work’.  My task is to follow the optimists on the matrix structure and mindset rather than the pessimists.   I am, unfortunately, rather more drawn to the pessimists.  Luis Goncalves, blogging on the topic, for example, talks about the political in-fighting, the goal conflict, the blame culture, and the management issues. He bluntly says that a ‘matrix organisation harms your company’.

Research from McKinsey, Revisiting the Matrix Organization (2016) follows the bleaker outlook, finding that matrix organisations ‘may create uncomfortable ambiguity for employees … the structure gives rise to a lack of clarity about responsibilities, expectations, and who reports to whom’ and that ‘Most employees in matrixed organizations, according to the survey, aren’t terribly engaged with their jobs.’

However, if I look on the optimistic side of being a pessimist I can take the view that pessimism will lead me to examine the risks and downsides closely in order to avoid them as we head towards a matrix structure, thus pessimism becomes advantageous?

My pessimist/sceptical lens may lead me to closer critical reflection on the report from Hanover Research, Best Practices in Matrix Organizational Structures which offers potentially helpful questions to start us down the path of making the matrix actually work.

Echoing the hard/soft or anatomy/physiology/psychology of other writers on matrix organisations, this report’s authors preface their question set with the point that ‘matrix organization structures reflect the reality of today’s external and internal business complexity…but the matrix structure itself solves nothing—it is the way people operate the structure that makes the matrix organization succeed or fail.’  Their advice is ‘After deciding to adopt a matrix structure, particular consideration should be given to the following questions:

  • How do we operate effectively with responsibility and accountability without authority?
  • How do we manage expectations of multiple bosses?
  • What is the best way of dealing with ambiguous and shifting reporting lines?
  • How can we best influence those separated by distance/time/culture?
  • How do we manage communications?
  • How do we manage conflict?
  • How do we develop routine relationships?
  • How do we clarify role specifications/performance objectives?’

Rather than taking a pessimist view,  and getting stuck in thinking a matrix structure is unlikely to work, I could use the questions to ask ‘if [we did …]  then … ‘.

However, it’s easy to sink back into pessimism as the report says, ‘Successful implementation requires shifting the organization’s culture, addressing the important function of emotional intelligence, and providing comprehensive training for both leaders, [managers] and employees alike.’  No mean task in this.

For example, the ‘comprehensive training’ advocated requires considerable resource investment.  There is the practical skill development, related to the formal organisation, that leaders require e.g. setting two-manager objectives, assigning accountabilities and there is emotional skill development, specifically in what were found to be four competencies in leaders successful in matrix roles: empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness.  ‘Influence and conflict management capabilities help leaders to build consensus around a common purpose and deliver the collaborative solutions that the matrix requires. Empathy, on the other hand, enables leaders to develop a better understanding of their counterparts’ perspectives and their customers’ mindset. Self-awareness allows leaders to summon the patience to manage the complexities of the matrix. Three additional skills noted in this same article as critical are ability to build loyalty, trust and interpersonal relationships.

My pessimistic bent suggests that the resource investment will not be easy to get but then I ask myself ‘What are the innovative and creative ways of solving that problem – perhaps the TRIZ framework could help here?’.

Do you see a pessimist advantage in getting a matrix organisation to actually work?  How would you tackle the matrix challenge?  Let me know.

Image:  Antony Gormley, Matrix II 2014