“It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” (Morpheus in The Matrix)
The term “matrix” is culturally negatively loaded and discussion of matrix structures in organisations often evokes strong adverse reactions. In our experience negative reactions are often down to:
- low levels of staff tolerance for ambiguity or multiplicity of reporting relationships
- assumptions about lack of clarity or autonomy in a matrix
- or based on actual experiences of working in poorly implemented matrix structures.
However, if you have chosen to move to a matrix organisation design, you are not alone. A Gallup survey in the US, commissioned by McKinsey (2016) found that 84% of employees who responded worked in a matrixed structure.
What is a Matrix Structure?
Matrix structures generally feature more than one reporting line for many staff. Often there is a solid reporting line to one manager from one dimension of the matrix (e.g. a project lead) and a dotted reporting line to another (e.g. a function lead) who may have only advisory input to performance reviews.
There are a number of forms of matrix structure, but the project matrix is probably the most common, with consultancies and technical contracting firms choosing this structural form as a natural fit.
Navigating a project matrix
Long-standing multi-functional project teams containing a range of specialists (e.g. project managers, developers, user-experience specialists, technical architects, testers) need consistent management to deliver against project objectives. Team members also need ongoing development, leadership and technical guidance from specialist leaders (e.g. a more experienced lead technical architect) outside their project teams. They also need a sense of belonging – a need that is sometimes met through connection with those with similar specialisms or special interests.
Both the project leader and the technical leader have a management role in such a matrix. However, clarity and agreement amongst the employee and the two managers about the respective roles are taken for granted and often missing, especially so following Covid. This lack of clarity often leads to confusion and ultimately poorer outcomes for all. The challenge here is “…not so much to build a structure as it is to create a matrix in the minds of our managers.” (Bartlett & Ghoshal, 1990)
Conditions for success: how to make it work?
Matrix structures are dependent on the capacity and capability of the organisation, managers, and team members to work in a more complex relationship environment. However, if you are about to implement a project matrix you will need to have a clear answer and agreement to the following questions on what this implies for team members in practice:
1. Who Recruits?
- Establish trust between project leaders and specialist functional leaders for effective recruitment.
- Avoid breakdowns by ensuring functional leaders are accountable for recruiting roles they directly manage.
The challenge here is that functional leaders can sometimes be too far removed from projects to understand what level of technical skills are needed by the team. When project leaders (through necessity or as an act of defiance) start their own recruitment for specialist roles then the project matrix breaks down in practice as a functional leader can’t be held accountable for recruiting or managing someone they have not directly hired.
2. Who Reviews Performance?
- Project leaders are often keen to be the primary reviewer of performance to get maximum influence on team members.
- However, a solid/dotted line reporting approach is usually the way to go. This is particularly true if: a) the project is going to be around for the medium to long term and b) the organisation values consistency of approach across projects.
3. Who Rewards?
- Align formal and non-formal reward systems to reinforce the triangular relationship in the matrix.
- Recognize the impact of rewards on team members’ work choices and approaches.
4. Who is Responsible for Project Resourcing?
- Specialist function leaders need to be close enough to the project team to know when to switch or replace staff on a project.
- Often, they are kept at arm’s length or have too heavy a personal workload and are then blamed when insufficient specialist resource is available for the project.
- What’s needed is regular communication, sight of pipelines and trusting relationships between the three parts of the triangle: the project leader, the specialists in the team and the specialist function leader.
5. Who Coaches the Team Members?
- It’s important here to note that “coaching” is a broad term that encompasses both “technical” and personal aspects.
- While some project team or functional leaders may have the capability to do both, it is worth being clear what roles each will be picking up.
6. Who is Responsible for Team Member Development?
- This depends if the development is specialist technical or about process development (e.g. working in an agile or scrum team environment).
- It is usually helpful if the person (or people) who is primarily responsible for reviewing and rewarding the team member also supports the development of the staff member, as development may be a critical element of the team member’s performance.
7. Who is Responsible for Tasking?
- In a long-standing project team environment project team tasking is usually done by the project team lead and this role is usually a non-negotiable for project leaders. Without this they have little ability to effectively be held to account for the delivery of a project.
- However, there may also be some tasking done by functional leads related to development or implementation of organisational processes or tools. Getting clarity on how tasking will work is key.
Once you have clarified these you may also want to refer to Bhalla et al who set in their MIT article (2022) the factors that make up a well-functioning matrix. Rogers & Davis-Peccoud (2012) at Bain & Company also offer a helpful perspective on how to make the matrix work. The Spotify organisation model which features, amongst others, Squads (cross-functional project teams) and Chapters (functional areas) is also worth a review.
Don’t move on to implementation until you can see how this structural form will work for you and your teams. Resist a reality veiled by misconceptions, and unveil the true potential of the matrix!
Bartlett, A.C. & Ghoshal, S. (1990) Matrix Management: Not a Structure, A Frame of Mind, in Harvard Business Review, July-August 1990.
Bazigos, M. & Harter, J. (2016) Revisiting the matrix organization, in McKinsey Quarterly, January 1, 2016
Rogers, P. & Davis-Peccoud, J. (2012) The Matrix doesn’t have to be your enemy, at
Vishal Bhalla, Daniel Gandarilla, and Michael Watkins (2022), How to Make Your Matrix Organization Really Work, in MIT Sloan Management Review, November 17, 2022
Quote from The Matrix sourced from: https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/quotes/