Manage The Challenges of Working In a Matrix Organization


Do You Work In a Matrix?  

Do you work in a company that requires you to coordinate across reporting lines to accomplish your goals?  In order to complete work, are people dependent on others who report to a different boss?

Matrix organizations are becoming more common as organizations grow larger, become more complex, and/or enter global markets. They offer the advantages of increased information flow across boundaries, deeper development of expertise and knowledge, and greater flexibility and responsiveness.

However, the disadvantages will quickly outweigh the advantages if leaders think this is simply a matter of restructuring or drawing dotted lines on an organizational chart.

Leadership In a Matrix

Everyone must provide leadership and assume responsibility for success.  A matrix simply will not work with the old style thinking of “it’s up to the people at the top to fix the problems.”

A matrix succeeds when there is a collaborative culture, where information flows freely, where development of strong relationships and informal networks are supported, and where people are encouraged to develop interpersonal skills (e.g. communication, conflict resolution, teamwork and influencing without authority.)

Power and control need to be viewed differently. Old school hierarchical thinking will create a misaligned organization with low morale and low productivity.

The good news is that in a matrix every single individual has the opportunity to influence it through the actions they take.

Four Challenges – And What You Can Do

1. Misaligned goals.

One of the most difficult challenges occurs when people working on the same project have different goals. Working at cross-purposes, they often end up in interpersonal conflict.  Conflicting goals stem from lack of a shared vision for the larger picture and are a setup for power struggles.

What you can do:

  • Make sure your goals are linked to the same vision and goals as others you are working with.
  • If you are experiencing conflict, check to see if you share the same goals before you start blaming each other.
  • Understand you are part of a team, whether or not you all report to the same person. If the team is not successful, you cannot be successful. Think “we” instead of “me.”

2. Conflicting Loyalties

When people are oriented along reporting lines rather than around the work, they don’t see themselves as part of the same team. When the focus is on power and control instead of the goal, attention is turned in the wrong direction. Conflict between line managers and functional managers erupts around prioritizing projects and allocating resources.

What you can do:

  • Focus on the work to be done and the best way to accomplish it.
  • For each major project or key responsibility area, create a Team Charter that clarifies priorities, processes, decision making, resources, etc.
  • Make sure your meetings are purposeful. See No More Boring Meetings, Please.” Use a good project tracking system to avoid wasting time with meetings that only provide updates.
  • Set an example and act in ways that encourage collaboration across boundaries.

3. Confusion about roles and responsibilities.

People don’t know who to contact for information and/or fail to share important information with those who need it. Someone might be seen as dropping the ball when they never knew the ball was in their court. Frustration arises when projects get stalled or are not implemented as a result of lack of communication and coordinated efforts.

What you can do:

  • See beyond your own piece of work in the context of the bigger picture.
  • Set up a communication plan.
  • Create a RACI chart. For each aspect of the project, identify what role each person plays: R= responsible to do the work and involved in decisions (several people). A= ultimately accountable for success (usually just one person, although it can be shared). C=consult to the project because they have needed information or expertise but do not make decisions or do the work. I=informed, people who are not directly involved but need to be updated on progress.

4. Delayed decisions.

In a complex environment where several teams are working on different aspects of a project, it can be unclear who has the final authority over decisions, even among the decision makers. And it can be especially challenging in organizations where leaders are unaccustomed to sharing decision-making. Often everyone owns a piece of a project, but it’s not clear who is accountable for the whole and as a result no one is steering the ship.

What you can do:

  • Find out everyone who needs to be involved in decisions. Make sure they all know and agree who is involved. Create a decision-making model that identifies who will make which kinds of decisions (similar to the RACI chart – in fact this will be easier to do if you have created a RACI chart).
  • Keep decision-makers up-to-date so they have the information they need to make informed decisions. Give them advance notice that you will be bringing a decision forward.
  • If you are put in a situation where you are accountable for the success of a project without the authority to make decisions on how to execute, push back or proceed carefully.

21 comments to Manage The Challenges of Working In a Matrix Organization

  • All very good concerns. Who holds the purse-strings to the project can also be a challenge.

  • Hi Jesse – great post
    In my previous career I spent quite a bit of time carrying out gate (milestone) reviews of large and complex projects and programs for the UK government. Matrix working can be stimulating and interesting. Particularly, if the individuals in the team are competent and confident people with good communication skills. All the points you make are important – particularly the governance issues at 4 above. But we found the other thing that really was key to success for large and complex programs, particularly if they were business critical, that was a sponsor at board level who knew how to support and get the resources the program needed but also how to challenge it. That is quite different from line management and the tinkering with detail you get with a leader who doesn’t know how to sponsor

  • Jesse, thanks for your cogent guidance on this important topic. In my MBA courses in Project Management, this is typically the number one issue that individuals describe struggling with and needing to work on to improve performance. The matrix offers many benefits and as you highlight, more than a few complexities. FYI, I offered up a few thoughts via my post: Leading in the Matrix-7 Ideas to Cultivate the Right Skills.

    As always, I appreciate the thought you put into your guidance, Jesse! I truly enjoy learning from you. Cheers, -Art

  • Great advice for a common challenge today.

  • Beth

    You are writing about our organization here! I couldn’t believe how much it resonates with our reality. I had never heard it called a matrix organization before. Thanks for the term; it will help provide clarity in describing part of our culture.

  • Such an important topic for both folks in such organizations and for those that serve them (consultants). The addition I suggest is NETWORK – NETWORK – NETWORK.

    I had a financial services client who as a project manager often had senior executives lined up to get him working on their problem projects. When I asked him about his success he responded with, ‘I know everybody in the bank’. With 60,000+ employees he didn’t mean it literally, but he had spent years building relationships which meant that when he got the next brief, he know where to go to get the resources to make it happen. He’d sometimes tell the exec. ‘Actually, you don’t need me. You should go talk to x and she/he will get it done for you’.

    As a consultant I often notice that when I’m having a coffee with a client I can bring them news about someone else in their organization with whom I had talked with the week before.

    • Thanks for emphasizing this point, Alan, and demonstrating why it is so important. I agree networking/ building relationships is the number one most critical factor for success in the matrix. This is something that will help with any of these potential challenges. Other things you can do to be successful in a matrix include freely sharing information and developing your interpersonal skills (e.g. communication, conflict resolution, teamwork and influencing without authority.)

  • Twenty years ago, I advised clients to avoid a matrix organization unless they could not solve organizational issues any other way. When we put in a matrix for a global manufacturing company in the mid-90’s, the hierarchical mindset was very strong. We had to clarify “Who is the boss?” “Who determines the final performance review ratings?” “Who grants vacation?” “Who breaks ties?”

    Today, the world is changing faster, and matrix organizations are more prevalent and more necessary. Jesse, your advice is on target for being effective in a matrix. And, much of what you suggest is relevant for other leadership situations without a pyramid structure, including virtual organizations, project driven organizations and professional services firms.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience of matrix organizations, Allen. It’s very helpful to hear real-life experiences and learnings and your reinforcement of the importance of a collaborative mindset. I also appreciate your making the point that these suggestions can be helpful for teams and organizations that are not officially matrix.

  • Omar Abed

    I liked this article.
    One of the best ones I’ve read about Matrix.
    Thanks Jesse.

  • Thank you Jesse for this fantastic blog post! I find this particular topic very intriguing in terms of my research and it is going to be one of the focuses of my doctoral dissertation, except that I am concentrating on collaboration in virtual teams, dispersed over several locations. Thank you for bringing all these challenges up, I have seen them as well in a case study with a global company, and I hope to start to dig into these challenges deeper soon.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Emma. Glad you found it helpful. Good choice for your doctoral research – collaboration in virtual teams is a very relevant and important topic now. I hope that as you dig in, you will share some of what you are learning.

  • Sure Jesse, I will keep you up informed!

  • Brilliant. Succinct. Sending to my client!

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