The Matrix revisited

The matrix is an organizational mystery to me. So popular, so reviled, so dysfunctional, so often suggested by the major consultancies.

My first encounter with the matrix was in the eighties when one of the major consultancies had suggested a matrix to the big international chemicals company where I was working. Fantastic product company, but they needed to know about marketing and markets, to which the matrix was the answer. The new region to which I belonged got a forceful manager who quickly made his mark, pushed the right sort of issues and quickly got the product division to hate and undermine him. A ”war” in which we in our market had to do our best to survive, while keeping customers happy and churning out plans and reports in all directions to keep the matrix happy. Good job that chemicals were so profitable then that they could afford using 20-25% of our resources for planning and reporting.

Not so long ago I did a specific organizational audit in an exceptionally profitable company. They had been wrestling with the issue of emulating their one-product/one-market success to more products and more markets. The big consultancy had solved this by implementing a matrix. Now everything seemed to be decided in committee, where all participants appeared to have the right to veto decisions for their particular market/product. Accountabilities were vague and unclear and role descriptions inflated. Good job they have all those profits so they can afford all those people sitting in meetings.

In one organization where I worked the combination of the matrix and Parkinsons law led to the proliferation of jobs. On the product side of the matrix they started adding people to deal with market areas and on the market side people to deal with product areas. The least one could say is that we did double our efforts.

My most absurd encounter with the matrix was in a major government agency, interviewing a manager with a vertical responsibility. Being a seasoned bureaucrat used to sitting in headquarters issuing edicts he was concerned with his mandate. ”Look here”, he said pointing to the intersection between his vertical and a specific horisontal responsibility. ”Look at that box”, he said, ”could one not draw a diagonal in that particular box, so that I am in charge of that resulting triangle, and the horizontal manager in  charge of the remaining triangle”.

I believe that the matrix was an honest attempt to address the fact that people need to cooperate to get stuff done and that drawing the matrix was the quickest way of fixing that. However, the nature of people does not seem to have changed. We still had the same issues with power, office politics and accountabilities. The managers on the top team more concerned with making their mark and jockeying for pole position.

More about what I think matrixes are attempting to solve and alternative solutions will follow in coming ports.

3 svar på ”The Matrix revisited”

  1. I am looking forward to seeing more of your thoughts on this. My own experience has been that the matrix organization, taken to what seems to be its common extreme, results in no real management whatsoever. One software trainer with whom I worked had four distinct managers, one for each type of work. Which resulted in no management or context whatsoever.

    I’m now wondering if executives who matrix the organization are trying to solve the problems that Wilfred Brown addressed (through his works councils, strengthened management, and appeals process) but without his concomitant ceding of power.

  2. What is most amazing is that despite the considerable organizational pain when using matrix, it’s still around. Current management mainstream considers the matrix the right answer to inter-functions organizational cooperation.

  3. I have recently completed a paper on this topic after having examined the design of several large and complex firms. I conclude, as you do, that the matrix is problematical and one reason that it is still used is perhaps that the alternatives are less well known. I have posted a presentation on my blog that summarises some of the key points in the paper.

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