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Matrix Management, Culture, and Resistance to Change

Author: ; Published: Feb 5, 2013; Category: Collaboration, Cross-Functional Teams, Matrix Management; Tags: ; No Comments»

The successful implementation of matrix management is accompanied by significant changes in organizational culture.  My working definition of organizational culture is what employees think and do when the boss isn’t looking.  Cultural changes cannot be dictated from on high although executive visions of desired cultural changes are important, in fact, essential to communicate throughout the organization as “air cover” for transformation. That said, real cultural change is a “ground war,” which happens when and only when significant changes in employee behavior accumulate. When changes in employee behavior take hold and reach a tipping point, cultural change momentum is achieved and thereafter tends to accelerate as late adopters and laggards end their resistance and get on board with the rest of the organization, at last convinced that the cultural change is an enduring one and not a “flavor of the month.”


There are numerous cultural shifts that are associated with successful implementation of matrix management and I won’t itemize all of them here.  That said, in many organizations the shifts include:


n      Adoption of a “one-firm concept” mindset which emphasizes the success of the organization as a whole rather than discrete components of the enterprise


n      Full embrace of horizontal accountability as well as vertical accountability, i.e., where  “dotted line” relationships take on equal importance with “solid line” relationships


n      Members of management learning to stay in their respective vertical or horizontal “swim lanes,” and coming to accept the basic matrix role dichotomy, whereby they no longer control both the horizontal and the vertical aspects of organizational life


n      Emphasis on solving multidisciplinary challenges at the lowest possible level in the hierarchy, prompting greater risk-taking within defined constraints rather than elevating all issues to the top a la “Mother May I?”


n      Horizontal management of alignment, multifunction synergy, and conscious prevention of fizzles, fumbles, and foibles when the baton is passed across the organization


n      Changes in manager and employee behavior whereby “dueling priorities” or “crunches” are identified and remedied promptly


And the list goes on.


In training and consulting to more than 70 clients who have adopted or are refining a matrix organization, I have sometimes encountered pockets of resistance to change, particularly in “strong culture” enterprises. Over the years, I have come to regard such resistance as a good thing.  To me, it means that the employee who is expressing reservations or complaints is mentally “trying on” new behaviors and like a good pair of new shoes, is finding that they may pinch a bit when first worn. The good news is that the employee is taking the change seriously and is trying to wrap their minds around it. To the extent that the employee finds these changes inconsistent with the behaviors that have brought them success thus far in their careers, there can be moments of apprehension and a higher degree of resistance. Expressions of resistance may be impolitic, but it is important to listen to the message more than critique its delivery. Akin to “growing pains,” some resistance is not only natural; it’s a positive sign that real change is taking hold. Don’t dismay: Managing the change process to convert the resistance to positive momentum for transformation makes all of the difference. 

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