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Matrix Management Problems & Misdirected Animosity

Author: ; Published: Nov 30, 2010; Category: Cross-Functional Teams, Matrix Management; Tags: , , , ; No Comments»


We monitor the Google Alerts for matrix management and, from time to time, note various blogs which deprecate matrix management on the basis of bad experiences that people have had with it—as if no one has had bad experiences with other forms of organizational structure!

At Strategic Futures, we never try to “sell” anyone on the need to shift to matrix management. This is a conclusion that an organization’s leadership must reach on its own when its traditional hierarchical structure has run out of breath. Once leadership has concluded that matrix management makes sense for its purposes, we are here to help.

That said, we can’t help but smile when we see various old wines repackaged in new bottles. The flawed logic usually goes something like this:

  1. There was a bad experience with matrix management.
  2. I had a bad experience, ergo everyone had the same experience,
  3. Therefore, matrix management is fundamentally flawed.

Management of any sort is defined as the art of getting work done through other people in a manner which satisfies established standards of efficiency and effectiveness. More colloquially, management is more about steering than it is about rowing. That’s not to say that today’s managers shouldn’t be “working managers,” meaning that they themselves must be personally productive even as they harness the talents and energies of others to accomplish objectives. On the other hand, if management fails to observe certain key principles, then any structure will surely fail. 

For instance, there is nothing intrinsic to matrix management that is inimical to customer-centered focus and action, but it does require putting the customer in the center of your organization. Indeed many matrix organizations use customer-centered teams to get work done on a seamless, cross-functional basis.

There is also nothing intrinsic about matrix management that suggests that you can’t engage the creativity of key contributors across every function represented on a matrix team.

In addition, capable managers in any structure are accountable for accomplishing short-term objectives even as they pursue longer-range development strategies that will build the capabilities of their talent pool. This is a both/and proposition not an either/or ultimatum.

As I have written in this space before, the relative absence of structure engenders more pronounced personality conflicts. Structure in and of itself need not mean suffocation or gridlock. Have the guts and foresight to establish decision protocols as part of the structure and then live by those protocols. Clarify roles, responsibilities and prerogatives as part of the structure. Do these things and then insist on customer-centered thoughts and deeds, aggressive human resource development, and the unleashing of creative energies and your organization will prevail over fantasies about how people can pull together magically, achieving Hollywood-inspired miracles and breakthroughs every time. Come on back to Planet Earth!  Homo sapiens still roam the globe.

If every manager in every organization were a virtuoso who could squeeze every drop of motivation and creativity out of every employee, and do so in a way that uniformly aggrandized the organization rather than the self, we could fantasize about an almost endless spectrum of structural or quasi-anarchic possibilities for organizing people and work. If your organization is flawlessly full of such virtuosos, then you have a brave new world ahead of you that is beyond the reach of us mere mortals. However, if your organization is like most, it is populated by intelligent, hard-working folks who also happen to be human beings, and, alas, with that human dimension, ladies and gentlemen, lies the rub. Indeed, management would be so much easier if it didn’t involve human beings!

Matrix management is a networked approach to getting things done, greatly facilitated by today’s communications and shared-minds technology. However, this networked approach requires use of a tested set of roles, rules, and tools to make it work. When these roles, rules, and tools are not installed nor followed correctly, you can’t expect favorable results.

False contradictions between sound management practice and matrix management are red herrings. The wholesale deprecation of matrix management is the management equivalent of performing delicate surgery with a stone implement. It’s a kind of all-or-nothing grandiosity based on oversimplification, often accompanied by a veiled invitation to return to the 1990s fashion of self-directed teams which didn’t achieve widespread success. We can fine tune a matrix organization and improve its performance. However, attempts to fine tune anarchy or some other kids-in-the-schoolyard caprice is a fool’s errand. When you see animosity towards matrix management in print, read between the lines!

For clarity on matrix management organization and its implementation, please call us, 703/836-8383 or email us at info@strategicfutures.com

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