Matrix Management

Most people work in a matrix organisation - they have to contend with the conflicts of delivering to several functions, processes and managers all at the same time.

Is it possible to master the complexity of managing within a matrix?

What is the Matrix Organisation? Webster is helpful here - he defines a matrix as 'something within which something else originates or develops'. The relevance of this definition to matrix management is that the matrix matters less than the projects or multidisciplinary processes which emerge from this approach to organisation and management.

More to the point however, is the definition which states 'something resembling a mathematical matrix especially in its rectangular arrangement of elements into rows and columns'; rows and columns - the horizontal and the vertical. The horizontal and the vertical intersecting into a grid where the grid is a network of interfaces. A matrix interface is where the focus of authority and responsibility comes into play, largely determining who works with whom on a project, product or other process flow. These interfaces can be between the project teams and the functional elements of an organisation. Conversely, a horizontal axis can be a process flow, product line or activity set that is not a project, but which requires multidisciplinary cooperation if timely success is to be achieved.


A Network of Interfaces

The matrix model is a network of interfaces between teams and the functional elements of an organisation.

In the following example, there are twelve interfaces.

It is important not to read too much into Matrix Management: it is not a metaphysical experience. Its profundity is to be found in its simplicity - think horizontal - think vertical - think interface.

Organisation Structure and Matrix Management:

A matrix organisation (for the sake of brevity now referred to as a 'matrix') is based on the concept that horizontal relationships across an organisation are just as important as the traditional reporting relationship within a typical functional organisation. The matrix structure is seen as an intricate latticework where people and roles are interwoven in delivering service within functions and to projects and processes laterally across the business.

Matrices are complex models of organisation that demonstrate the inter-relationships that exist between people who deliver a particular service to each other. Traditional models of hierarchy, based upon the classical school of organisational design, focus primarily on reporting relationships within functional entities. Matrix organisation focuses upon multiple relationships. No one matrix structure will appeal to all businesses. Matrix gathered ground in the 1960's and earlier in high tech industries.

NASA and other highly complex military or high tech organisations first gathered their expertise in this area and now most organisations tend to be organised on these lines.

Unsurprisingly there are some problems associated with matrix organisations and these tend to be around having multiple reporting where organisations still reward people for behaving in a functional manner. It can be pretty confusing when a technical expert from a specialised department is not only responsible to his or her functional head but also to leaders of other projects.

'What are people rewarded for achieving' sums up the key issue that leads to failure of 'matrix' taking hold and working as an organisational concept - continuing to reward people for getting better at what they do principally within a function will guarantee that this is where they will focus their attention; it matters little that telling people that their contribution to other projects or processes is critical if they continue to be rewarded in the same old way. It stands to reason that innovative and flexible HR policies on reward and recognition have to be developed in order to emphasise the importance of behaving in a 'matrix' manner. This may seem fairly obvious but many sophisticated organisations have failed to master this quandary.

Career development and appraisal are other potential nightmares for the unwary organisation that simply divides up assessments on performance management around the key stakeholders of critical projects. A performance management process that works has to take account of all those in the supply chain to whom each individual is critical in in performing a process, and thus a complex variant of 360 degree performance review is the only answer.

Matrix organisations are relatively easy to understand but difficult to manage. One of the practical difficulties is that with fewer and fewer middle management positions in the average organisation - on what projects does the middle ranking specialist focus his or her energies when resources are scarce? There has to be a delicate negotiation between the direct line manager and various project managers or process owners in order for any conflict to be resolved. As all businesses are focusing on 'achieving more with less' it becomes even more difficult to prioritise around functional and process or project needs. It is clear that 'matrix' needs to be thought through to work well.

Differentiation and Integration

The simple rule to understand just how complex the 'matrix' needs to be, is to rate the degree of differentiation or specialisation that exists within and between business units. If the organisation has a high degree of differentiation where the difference in functions is very wide-ranging and complex the organisation needs to develop integrative devices to ensure that speedy 'transfer of knowledge' and decision-making exists between the highly specialised units. If differentiation is very high the focus must be continually on devising more accurate integrative systems to manage the effective transfer and communication of knowledge around the organisation. The result of failing to develop effective integrated systems is 'silo management'.

General Manager
Functional ManagerFunctional ManagerFunctional Manager
Project Manager1 >>>>>>>2 >>>>>>>3 >>>>>>>
Project Manager4 >>>>>>>5 >>>>>>>6 >>>>>>>
Project Manager7 >>>>>>>8 >>>>>>>9 >>>>>>>

The Learning Organisation

Matrix is a Process not a Structure - a learning organisation is based upon processing information, forming decisions and implementing them in order to continue their field of operations. Building a learning organisation is extremely complex and starts with cultural change. When staff who lead large organisations recognise that 'matrix' goes well beyond roles and responsibilities they will realise that it is really a process. The 'matrix' should provide information upon which its key actors - those who work the process - reinvent the organisation and its key flows and ways of working to accommodate predicted changes. For many organisations this is a major departure from seeing 'matrix' as integration of core interfaces in the supply chain.

Designing a matrix organisation is almost never simple. It is an evolving process that requires the input of a variety of people. The design of an effective matrix organisation has always been a fascinating process because the 'actual design' of the organisation and the overlapping relationships between functions, roles, processes and people can never be sketched out and neatly presented in a two dimensional format.


The reality of many organisational structures is that they should be designed around the strategy of the business - form follows direction. The goals that an organisation pursues determine the structure to deliver the results. It goes without saying that organisations should restructure their activities continuously - many do, but often these are driven by politics of change rather than the rationality of the marketplace. Organisational structures should evolve over time and if the organisation has a handle on its environment and can predict, within constraints, the major pressures it will encounter, it will find that structural change is seen as natural and welcomed by organisational members because they see the approach as prolonging and ensuring the continuation of the organisation into the future.

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