The challenges of matrix management

Managing people with more than one reporting line is a challenge. Barry Johnson and Mandy Geal offer advice.

Matrix management is the practice of managing individuals with more than one reporting line. It is also used to describe managing cross-functional, cross-business groups and other forms of working that cross the traditional vertical business units. The emphasis must be on managing.

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The basic problem with matrix management is a belief that it is just an organisational structure. If a matrix structure is set up, it is unlikely to work. Matrix management is about managing and every person in the organisation must undergo a thinking shift.

Every manager, every professional, every skilled and semi-skilled employee will be impacted. If they don’t understand the change, they become disgruntled, inefficient and ineffective. We have observed what can happen by the imposition of an alien structure without the understanding and the training of the managers, supervisors and key professionals.

We add that a couple of briefings won’t do the trick, it requires in-depth understanding at the people skill and communication levels, operational processes and skill changes. Matrix management requires the up-skilling of managers, and professionals rethinking the boundaries of their profession.

The traditional organisation has some functions that may have names such as design, development, manufacturing, finance, HR, marketing, sales, customer service, etc. The common factor of these functions is that they are bounded, contain specialists and are managed by people who have a specialist outlook.

They are a linear hierarchy that, no matter how modern the management thinking is, is fundamentally command and control – now socially modernised.

Matrix management cannot be command and control. Today the most successful companies are those where top executives recognise the need to manage the new environmental and competitive demands by focusing on developing the abilities, behaviour and performance of individual managers.

The organisation will need leaders and that requires interpersonal communication. Change succeeds only when those assigned to the new trans-functional and interdependent tasks understand the overall goals and are dedicated to achieving them.

The challenge is not so much to build a matrix structure, as it is to create a matrix in the minds of the employees. The inbuilt conflict in a matrix structure pulls managers in several directions at once. Developing a matrix of flexible perspectives and relationships within each manager’s mind achieves an entirely different result. It lets individuals make the judgments and negotiate the trade-offs that guides the organisation towards the shared strategic objectives.

With markets, technology, competition and complexity changing, the executive managers often recognise oversimplification as a strategic trap, they began to accept the need to manage complexity rather than seek to minimise it.

This realisation, however, led many into an equally threatening organisational trap when they concluded that the best response to increasingly complex strategic requirements was increasingly complex organisational arrangements.

The prime response was the matrix structure. Its parallel reporting relationships acknowledged the diverse, conflicting needs of products and processes, and provided a formal mechanism for resolving issues and problems. Its multiple information channels allowed the organisation to capture and analyse complexity. And its overlapping responsibilities were designed to combat parochialism and build flexibility into the company’s response to change.

The main issue with multiple reporting is that it leads to conflict and confusion. The proliferation of channels create informational logjams as a proliferation of committees and reports bog down the organisation, and overlapping responsibilities produced turf battles and a loss of accountability.

The strategic and structural traps seem simple enough to avoid, but many experienced general managers have fallen into them. Much of the answer lies in the way we have traditionally thought about the manager’s role as we outlined above.

The critical strategic requirement is to build the most viable and flexible strategic processes; the key organisational task is to capture individual capabilities and motivate the entire organisation to respond co-operatively to a complicated and dynamic environment. Executives correctly recognised the need for a multi-dimensional organisation to respond to growing communication, technology and business complexity.

The problem was that they defined their organisational objectives in structural terms. Companies must concern themselves with the systems and relationships that allow the lifeblood of information to flow through the organisation. They also need to develop a healthy organisational psychology — the shared norms, values and beliefs that shape the way individual managers think and act. Traditional command and control just isn’t going to work.

The companies naively assumed that changing their formal structure would force changes in interpersonal relationships and decision processes that would reshape the individual attitudes and actions of managers. Wrong, traditional custom and practice just created conflicts. The historical hierarchical thinking blocked new thinking.

The resolution does not, and cannot, come quickly. Solutions may not occur without the installation of a learning culture and building decision-making relationships. Without a learning culture, the new job requirements will frustrate, alienate or simply overwhelm many managers, and changes in individual attitudes and behaviour may never happen.

As companies struggle to create organisational capabilities that reflect rather than diminish environmental complexity, good managers focus on the challenge of building an appropriate set of employee attitudes and skills, linking them together with carefully developed processes and relationships. In essence, they focus on building the organisation rather than installing a new structure.

The companies that are successful at developing multi-dimensional organisations have as their first objective the organisational psychology — the broad corporate beliefs and norms that shape managers’ perceptions and actions. Then, by enriching and clarifying communication and decision processes, companies reinforce these psychological changes with improvements in organisational functioning. Later managers realign the organisational anatomy through changes to the formal structure.

There appear to be three principal characteristics common to those organisations that managed the change effectively: 
1. The executive develops and communicates a clear and consistent corporate vision.
2. They develop human resource approaches to broaden individual perspectives and identification with corporate goals.
3. They integrate individual thinking and activities into the broad corporate agenda, so enhancing co-operation and effectiveness. 

Perhaps the main reason managers cling to parochial attitudes is their history bounded by their functional responsibilities. To break down such insularity it is necessary to communicate a clear sense of corporate purpose that gives context and meaning to each manager’s particular roles and responsibilities, having company vision that is crafted and articulated with clarity, continuity and consistency.

We are talking about clarity of expression that makes company objectives understandable and meaningful; continuity of purpose that underscores their enduring importance; and consistency of application across business units and geographical boundaries that ensures uniformity throughout the organisation.

There are three keys to clarity in a corporate vision: simplicity, relevance and reinforcement. Simplicity can make a vision more powerful. Relevance means linking broad objectives to concrete agendas. By focusing the company’s attention on facing competition, technology change and customer wants, to drive a rationalisation of plant operations and level of sales achievements. 
The third key to clarity is top management’s continual reinforcement, elaboration and interpretation of the core vision to keep it from becoming obsolete or abstract. 

Despite shifts in leadership and continual adjustments in short-term business priorities, companies must remain committed to the same core set of strategic objectives and organisational values. Without such continuity, the unifying vision will be defused and meaningless.

Everyone in the company must share the same vision. The cost of inconsistency produces confusion and, in extreme cases, can lead to chaos with different units of the organisation pursuing agendas that are mutually debilitating.

Formulating and communicating a vision — no matter how clear, enduring, and consistent — cannot succeed unless individual employees, from the CEO to Little Fred, understand and accept the company’s stated goals and objectives. Problems are usually related to reception rather than to transmission. The development of individual understanding and acceptance is a challenge for a company’s managers and human resource practices.

While top managers universally recognise their responsibility for developing and allocating a company’s scarce assets and resources, their focus on finance and technology often overshadows the task of developing the scarcest resource of all — capable managers. There is one key to company success in fast-changing environments; it is the ability of top management to turn the perceptions, capabilities and relationships of individual managers into the building blocks of the organisation.

Let us be clear. The most important, we might say imperative function of a manager, is to ensure the interpersonal communication and understanding of corporate elements such as corporate vision and values and that their staff build the operational skills to cope with the changes in their jobs.

HR management is the line manager’s job. It is the line manager who will walk the floor, communicate with his or her staff, give and receive information, give feedback that helps the individual learn, recognises the social climate and act on what they sense motivates individuals so that the groups and units are motivated.

One pervasive problem in companies whose leaders lack this ability — or fail to exercise it — is getting managers to see how their specific responsibilities relate to the broad corporate vision. Growing complexity and strategic sophistication have accelerated the growth of specialists who are physically and organisationally isolated from each other. The task of dealing with this parochialism is the top managers’ job.

They must be the leaders in the recruitment, development and assignment of the company’s vital human talent. Managers must manage the people.

The first step in successfully managing complexity is to tap into the full range of available talent. Not only must companies enlarge the pool of people available for key positions, they must also develop new criteria for choosing those most likely to succeed. Past success is no longer a sufficient qualification for increasingly subtle, sensitive and unpredictable senior-level tasks, top management must become involved in a more discriminating selection process. 

Once the appropriate top-level candidates have been identified, the next challenge is to develop their potential. The most successful development efforts have three aims that take them well beyond the skill-building objectives of classic training programmes.

They inculcate a common vision and shared values; broaden management perspectives and capabilities, and develop contacts and shape management relationships. Vision and values are the core of operations in any highly functioning organisation. They are an absolute essential in complex organisations.

Broadening management perspective is essentially a matter of teaching people how to manage complexity instead of merely to make room for it. The training and development group has to de-specialise top management jobholders and trainees by supplementing its traditional menu of specialist courses and functional programmes with more intensive general management training. Modern companies must have business heads that understand, appreciate and respect specialist points of view.

The final aim — developing contacts and relationships — is much more than an incidental by-product of good management development. Activities must be undertaken to build contacts and create bonds that could never be achieved by luck. 

The company perhaps needs to spend as much on training as it does on R&D. Not only because of the direct effect it has on upgrading skills and knowledge, but also because it plays a central role in indoctrinating managers into a club where personal relationships and informal contacts are more powerful than the formal systems and structures.

Although recruitment and training are critically important, the most effective companies recognise that the best way to develop new perspectives and thwart parochialism in their managers is through personal experience. By moving selected managers across functions, businesses, and geographic units, a company encourages cross-fertilisation of ideas as well as the flexibility and breadth of experience that enable managers to grapple with complexity and come out on top. 

Top organisations have long been committed to the development of its human resources as a means of attaining durable competitive advantage. We now recognise it is people that make profits so we must invest in the development of the people who have the talent to manage the people that make profits. 

About the author 

Barry Johnson is a Non-executive Director of Learning Partners and a fiction author.  Mandy Geal is a Director at Learning Partners. Mandy can be contacted on




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