Making the Matrix work

Lots of larger companies maintain a matrix structure in their organization. This can place you as a manager for some extra challenges. We are not talking about the Matrix, made famous by the movies with the same name, no this is about the real world in business.

A matrix is an organizational structure where employees report to two different managers for different aspects or focus areas of their position.

As an example, the IT manager in a plant would have to report to the local plant manager to be responsible that the plant’s IT needs are met, at the same time the IT manager would report to a corporate IT manager in order to ensure that the IT protocols and practices will get followed throughout the corporation.

For the IT manager the challenges will be to keep both his managers informed and ensure the goals and objectives as set by both are aligned and do not conflict. For both the plant manager and the corporate IT manager the challenges would be to keep the IT manager working on their goals and objectives.

Another example would be that a production manager reports both to the VP of production and the VP of business for a particular product. Challenges here would include possible conflicting priorities between running product trail for the business VP where the production VP wants to ensure the agreed quantities of the regular products will be met on schedule.

The most common issue for matrix organizations are conflicting priorities, conflicting goals and objectives, and conflicting levels of authority. Some organizations try to solve this by creating “solid” reporting lines (responsible for pay level and performance appraisals and daily supervision) and dotted reporting lines (responsible for functional guidance and objectives). A wise man once told me that the reality is that, no matter how hard you try, there are just two bosses in a matrix structure and they will have the conflicting priorities, goals and objectives, and levels of authority. My experience has been exactly like that.

As we have seen before, conflict is a regular occurrence in business life and should not be seen as negative in all cases. Ignoring the conflict is probably the worst that can happen and the individual manager who does not deal with the inherent conflicts in his matrix will be stressed and crushed by competing senior managers. Communication is key here. Clear and consistent, confident and with an eye on the goals that are common for both senior levels at the axes of the matrix. Getting the senior levels to coordinate their departmental objectives may be difficult but is essential for the matrix structure to work effectively.

For their part, the senior managers on the axes of the matrix see themselves faced with a number of people to manage over who they have little or no direct control. Every employee in their line of the matrix has another senior manager with different timing, priorities and issues. Again, clear and consistent communication about their role and objectives with an eye on the overriding goals of the organization will be the major way to become productive and effective.

The regular readers of this blog will know my fascination with Goal Clarity and also in a matrix organization this is of the utmost importance. Once the Goals for the organization have been agreed with both senior managers of the different axes of the matrix, the manager in the matrix can organize the resources, figure out a process and get to work.

Working in a matrix organization can be very stimulating as you can share your ideas and worries with like minded employees working in similar assignments. This way you will notice trends and common issues quicker than in a traditional organization. Because you report to two senior people with different expertise and resources it will be easier and quicker to get focus on issues that may occur in your department or business. By sharing resources and experts around the company, a matrix organization, when managed well, can save lots of money.

In order to gain the positives out of the matrix structure and avoid the pitfalls, a few tips:

  • Make sure your role is abundantly clear to all
  • Learn how to communicate and over communicate to ensure all  involved know exactly what the options and timing restrictions are
  • Coordinate goals and ensure communication stays open until all have agreed on an eventual set of goals what will be aligned
  • Be flexible, situations will occur where you will have to switch operations or priorities at the drop of a hat, be prepared.

With these tips, ensure you manage the matrix because if you don’t, the matrix will manage you.


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