Making the matrix work

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Written by Kevan Hall on 1 July 2013 in Features

Kevan Hall explains how to successfully manage a matrix organisation

Many organisations are finding that work no longer fits into the neat vertical silos of function and geography. We need to serve global customers, run more integrated supply chains and internal functions, operate consistent processes and get more out of the resources that used to be locked up in the silos.

Many have moved to some form of matrix structure in which people have more than one boss, often reporting to the function and also to the business, region or product line.

This form of working has varying effects on different levels within the organisation:

  • the global group These are senior leaders who sit at the top of the organisational structure. They don't usually have more than one boss themselves but head up the functions or business units. They tend to be focused on a single stream of activity and, in a matrix, their lives don't change very much. If you are the CEO, everyone still works under you and you still have tremendous positional authority and influence to get things done.

The members of the global group often underestimate the impact of introducing a matrix. They are used to working through networks and alliances and with higher levels of ambiguity, and have lots of opportunity to socialise ideas, develop strategy and communicate with their colleagues at board meetings and strategic retreats.

  • the locally loyal These are the people who work in our factories, local offices and sales organisations. Even within the most global companies, these people usually represent 85 per cent or more of the total workforce. The matrix should have little impact on them and, in fact, a key factor in making the matrix work is protecting these people from its additional complexity.

It's a common mistake to take the matrix too far and, if you find firstline managers and supervisors or even people in operational roles are matrixed, you probably have gone too far

  • the matrix middle These are the people who sit between the other two groups, and usually penetrate only two or three levels down into the organisation. They have more than one boss and have to translate the strategy from the top into the operational practicalities of the bottom. This was, of course, always the role of middle management but now we have introduced the complexity of multiple bosses, competing goals and an environment in which accountability without control, and influence without authority, have become the norm.

Unsurprisingly, this third group of people are critical to the success of a matrix because they are where the day-to-day trade-offs and resolution of dilemmas happen. If we don't equip these people with the skills, authority and information to manage these trade-offs and make decisions, they will either make the wrong choices or they will constantly escalate issues to the global group for decisions.

In some ways, people in the matrix middle have more complex jobs than their bosses. If you have more than one boss influencing your goals and evaluating your performance, you may be the only person who has a full understanding of your entire role and goals and should certainly be the person who has the most motivation to solve any problems of clarity and ambiguity.

Some people relish this complexity and opportunity - a less clearly defined role can give you a chance to grow and expand into new areas - but others find it deeply uncomfortable. Two common complaints from managers new to the matrix are how can I be accountable for things when I don't have control? and how can I get things done without authority? This is the 'matrix victim' attitude and it often stems from individuals with a lack of confidence in their own skills to get things done without traditional control and hierarchical authority.

What do the matrix middle need in order to be successful?

The matrix mindset

The matrix is complex and can easily become a scapegoat for other issues. Many articles and blog posts about the matrix focus on its disadvantages but there are significant advantages as well, otherwise most major organisations would not use it.

We define the matrix mindset as having five key elements:

  • self-leadership Taking control and ownership of your goals, role and skills. Seek out and engage the others you need to be successful and push back against unnecessary control from others
  • breadth People who are successful in the matrix think beyond their role and function. To get things done, they take ownership of the delivery of results that cross organisational boundaries, external suppliers or other partners
  • comfortable with ambiguity The ability to bring clarity, structure and control to bear when necessary, coupled with the confidence to move beyond this to work with ambiguity, flexibility and trust
  • adaptive Flexible and open to new ideas and new ways of working. They know that today's solution to dilemmas may not be the right one for tomorrow
  • influencers People who don't fall back on traditional power and authority to get things done. They use a wide range of influencing techniques and sources of power. They see recourse to hierarchy as a failure.

The matrix skill set

We can't expect people to adopt a matrix mindset unless they have the skills to back it up. Here are a few of the things that are different when working in a matrix:

  • multiple bosses mean competing goals, divided loyalties and more complex management relationships
  • cross-functional connections can lead to far more invitations to meetings and conference calls and we can be swamped by a mass of unnecessary email. More teamwork and communication is not the answer and, in fact, we have to be much more selective about where we co-operate and where we do not
  • inclusive decision-making can become too slow to be effective. We need to be clear about decision rights and build trust so that not everyone needs to be involved in everything
  • control becomes more difficult to exercise in the far-flung organisation and central control may be too slow to be effective. Successful matrix leaders realise they can't be the experts in everything and, instead, become facilitators and coaches, making sure that they have the right people in the right place to make decisions, rather than trying to do it themselves
  • goals and roles become less clear so we need to make objectives and jobs clear where we can, but higher levels of ambiguity will mean that trade-offs, dilemmas and even managing conflict become a normal part of our work
  • we need to align goals and roles across functions and geography rather than just within our own areas of responsibility
  • accountability without control, and influence without authority, become the norm. Different sources of power and influence become more successful and hierarchy and traditional positional power are undermined
  • we need to set up, and sustain, networks across traditional functional boundaries in order to be successful.

In complex organisations, we need to exercise these skills in an environment in which we are working across barriers of distance, cultures, time zones and organisational complexity and where most communication is done through technology rather than face to face.

If we don't update our skills, we will tend to fall back on outdated tools that may even make problems worse, for example in encouraging more teamwork, communication and control in an environment in which they are already more of a problem than a solution.

The right information and authority

If we want middle managers to manage complex trade-offs and dilemmas, they need the right information and authority to be effective. When we introduce a matrix, we often invest in company-wide systems that give us much more information across the business. However, these systems only improve productivity if we use the information to decentralise and speed up decision-making.

For example, the real value of a factory information system is not in giving the manufacturing director more information; it is in giving the operators on the line the information they need to control quality and productivity, moment by moment.

However, it is no good having the information if people don't have the authority to act on it. If managers have to escalate for approval, this will always add delay and additional cost and will increase dissatisfaction as they feel disempowered. We need to make sure that middle managers have the authority and confidence to manage these decisions themselves.

Matrix guardians at the top

Although the global group - the leaders at the top of the matrix - often do not experience as much of an impact themselves as do the matrix middle, they do have a critical role as matrix guardians.

First, they need to demystify the matrix for their people - they need to communicate clearly their goals for the matrix and make sure that it doesn't stretch too far into the organisation. The matrix does add complexity so we should only use it where the added value is higher than the cost.

Secondly, they need to make sure that the four Ss, or waves of change, of a successful matrix implementation are brought fully into play - structure should flow from strategy, then into systems and skills changes.

Many organisations spend up to ten years and many millions of pounds adopting systems from companies like Oracle or SAP. These projects have major implications for business processes and ways of working, and take an enormous amount of time, money and energy. However, important people processes and systems are often neglected. Appraisal and goal-setting processes need to reflect that there are other inputs to performance rather than just that of the function.

Incentives and goal setting also need to be aligned with the matrix. If they are not, they can act against the behaviours we want in a matrix by encouraging outdated silo thinking. For example, if we ask people to think globally but we reward them on the basis of optimising their local numbers, we will undermine the matrix.

Skill development is usually the poor relation but, if we don't get the skills, mindset and way of working right, our huge investments in structure and systems change are unlikely to deliver their full benefits. Many organisations that fail to embed the systems and skills changes then conclude that the structure is not working. As a result, they give up and reorganise again, restarting a process that was never completed with the previous reorganisation. If your company seems to be locked into an endless cycle of reorganisation, and many are, ask yourself if the systems and skills waves of change have been successfully managed.

Thirdly, senior leaders need to monitor the performance of the matrix. If they hear 'matrix victim' statements or find a matrix being blamed for normal business challenges such as competition for resources, they need to communicate the purpose of the matrix and support the structure.

A useful indicator of problems is the level of escalation. If people are escalating issues to senior leaders, it is a sign that they don't feel they have the skills, information or authority to deal with it themselves. Senior leaders may need to get involved to solve the problem but they also need to take the next step of building the capability in their people so that, if this problem comes up again, people can solve it for themselves. Successful matrix leaders often keep a note of escalation to identify systemic problems.

Leadership, collaboration and personal effectiveness are all a little different in the matrix. We need to adapt our mindset and skills to working at a higher level of complexity and this may involve us unlearning some of the things that worked in the simpler past.

If you are supporting a matrix organisation, ask yourself whether your people processes and skills in particular are able to make people successful in this more complex way of working.

About the author

Kevan Hall is CEO of Global Integration, specialist in matrix management, virtual team and global working. He can be contacted on +44 (0)118 932 8912 or via You can also follow him on Twitter @KevanHall


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