Organizational structure defines how a business allocates tasks, coordinates activities and supervises the efforts of its various teams. In a quest to get closer to its customers and become more responsive and innovative many businesses are dumping the organizational models they have used historically. They are becoming less hierarchical and moving toward matrix structures of organization, where there is greater diffusion in the authority of senior managers, and in the roles and responsibilities of those who report to them.
A Matrix organizational structure describes a management practice where organization’s human resources are deployed based on departmental functions, as well as for specific products. With the result that an employee may belong to a functional department but actually work away from that department in an unconnected project. This person would have to report to two bosses; the head of his functional department and the manager of the project in which he working. As an example, a cost accountant temporarily assigned to an engineering project, remains part of the accounts department while engaged in the engineering project.
Matrix management is becoming popular because it provides important benefits to organizations. It is effective for breaking the silos that tend to develop in most organizational environments. They also help to redistribute organizational resources more efficiently across various functions. Matrixes unlock the resources that often lie trapped behind departmental walls and make it easier for people within those departments to share their expertise with others in the organization. It allows companies to bring depth and diversity to project teams at lower costs.
However for those leading and working in a matrix environment, being able to function effectively can be hugely challenging. This is because the matrix organizational structure is very different from more traditional models where everyone knows their place and stays in that place. For middle managers the challenge often lies in knowing who to report to and what tasks to give priority to. For senior managers leading matrix teams, the challenge is in getting the most out of team members who do not report to them and are therefore not directly under their formal authority.
There are a number of proven guidelines for surviving and succeeding in the matrix environment, both for those who work in them and those who lead them.
Successfully Working in a Matrix Team
A matrix environment can be highly stimulating for those who work in it because it exposes them to initiatives outside their functional departments. It also serves as a platform for enriching knowledge and relationships beyond one discipline. However, in order to flourish within them, it is important to properly manage the opportunities for conflict inherent in matrix environments.
– Get Clarity on whose primary responsibility it is to evaluate you. This is often your functional head with whom you seldom work, and not the matrix head with whom you interact often.
– Get clarity on priorities. There will often be conflict in how the different managers prioritize the tasks assigned to you, with the result that you are pulled in two opposing directions. Find ways to get both managers to talk to each other about the situation.
– Maintain regular contact with the manager you report to, who is usually not the matrix manager. Doing this will help you circumvent the turf wars that sometimes characterize matrix systems.
– Maintain contact with colleagues in your functional department so as to stay in the loop of the internal politics and retain your relevance when you eventually return to the department fully.
– Understand how the inputs of your matrix managers will reflect on your performance evaluation
Leading Matrix Teams
Leading a matrix team can be frustrating because unlike hierarchical management structures where accountability for results and control of resources rest with the team leader, matrix leaders are accountable for results but do not control the resources required to them. Such leaders find that they can only get results by influencing others rather than through the use of authority. Success at leading matrix teams is directly connected to the leaders’ abilities to do the following:
Forging Team Identity and Purpose: Members of the matrix will be drawn from unrelated departments and will arrive with conflicting interests and loyalty to their particular functional units. Uniting these disparate ways of thinking is the primary assignment that the matrix manager must address to enable the team fulfill the purpose for which it was created. Unless this is done, the team will pull in different directions as members’ functional heads exert undue influence on their behaviors.
The Ability To Collaborate: A matrix leader’s ability to thrive in a collaborative rather than a competitive environment is key to success. Being able to get results by encouraging diversity, promoting openness, encouraging innovation and building team spirit are important factors for the success of the group. This is especially important since those who are assigned to the matrix may be peers of the manager.
Empathy for Other Managers Needs: The more competitive a matrix leader is, the less likely they are to succeed. Their ability to recognize the claims of unit or departmental heads to the time and expertise of those assigned to work in the matrix is important. The more the leader is able to see the other managers’ point of view, the easier it will be to reach workable compromises on how to use resources.
Problem Solving Skills: One of the quickest ways to doom a matrix team to failure is for the manager to escalate conflicts with other managers to those higher up in authority. Managers who are able to demonstrate the patience and tact necessary to resolve situations rarely need to do this, and as a result, they succeed more.
Celebrate People and Success: Highlighting achievements strengthens the bonds between team members and gives them the feeling of making meaningful contributions. The more a team is knit together by purpose and friendship, the less it will be susceptible to external influences.
In conclusion, the major difficulties with success in matrix environments are relational. They border mostly on people’s willingness to adapt to working with higher degrees of overlap in their authority, as well as responsibilities. By being willing to accept the increased vulnerability that comes with greater interdependence, it becomes easier to make success of matrix teams and systems.