Matrix Management is more of a "patch" than a solution
Matrix Management is a structural “solution” widely applied to a systemic and paradigmatic problem which could be simply described as, the way we work doesn’t work.
Matrix Management seeks to create the conditions by which employees can work on multiple projects outside their functional fiefdom, for which they have important, even critical, expertise. In an attempt to make employees accountable to the various projects they serve, they are made to report to each of the various relevant project managers, while often ultimately reporting to a functional manager with limited familiarity with the employee's day to day work. What comes to mind is this short but memorable scene from the movie Office Space in which character Bob Slydell explains how his motivation is impacted by the fact that he has eight bosses.
On paper, Matrix Management may appear to be an efficient and orderly solution to a complex problem. In practice, it creates at least as many problems as it solves, the most significant of which is multiple managers who do not have a way to collectively (collaboratively) manage a single employee. The effect of matrix management is more chaos and frustration for everyone as employees are mangled and stretched across the organization in an emotional parallel to old fashioned rack torture.
But in order to more fully understand why Matrix Management doesn’t work, you’ll need to exercise a superhuman power that allows you to see something invisible: hierarchy. Are you ready to peek inside one of the most significant and ubiquitous paradigms of all time? Let’s do it!
Hierarchies are everywhere - in nature, in families, and in organizations, for example, and they can be helpful when they show us the relationship between things. In organizations, the hierarchy shows who has more power and authority in any given dyad and in the organization over all. Power and authority are the key values of hierarchy and the more you have of each, the more you’re able to accomplish in that particular system.
From its earliest appearance in the Neolithic/Agrarian Revolution to a more prominent application 5500 years ago organizing infantry and large building projects such as pyramids and later great walls, our use of hierarchy hasn’t evolved that much: It’s still largely a reporting structure used to manage resources and settle disputes. Yet our world has become immensely more complicated requiring us to work with exponentially more factors, simultaneously, than our predecessors in early hierarchies ever had to.
Our implicit response to this problem has been to “patch” our hierarchies with a great many tools, techniques, processes, dotted reporting lines, matrices, cross-functional teams, and of course people, all in an effort to get hierarchies to perform as a sophisticated system. But hierarchy was never designed for this. It’s like trying to win the Indy 500 with a canoe.
The values of hierarchy, power and authority, actually run counter to the work-related needs we have for organizations: to make high quality decisions, problem-solve (of which decision making is a sub-set), be strategic, design complex work, collaborate with other organizations, merge with another company, leverage diversity, innovate, manage performance, plan for succession, or any of the things which organizations must to do well in order to truly thrive. The only real advantage that hierarchy offers us is accountability, but not enough and at great cost. Unless you’re running a sweatshop, there are far better ways to get accountability.
Matrix Management is ineffective for the same reason that any tool, process, and structure designed to make a hierarchy more collaborative, flexible, friendly, or flat is ineffective. It requires a different approach to work based on values other than the usual hierarchical ones of power and authority.
Like all the OD tools and processes and structures that flow in and out of vogue, Matrix Management is glorious in theory and looks good on paper. But it crashes when you try to run it on hierarchy. It’s time to stop patching. The complexity involved in leading and managing a large organization, governing a country, building and running a nuclear power plant, addressing poverty, world hunger, and climate change are simply beyond the capacity of hierarchy. Today’s world requires something far more dynamic – a modern, integrated system capable of addressing the complex nature of our work.
Welcome to the 21st Century. The Collaborative Operating System (“COS”) is sophisticated system designed to enable organizations to be healthy, high- functioning and productive. And although we haven’t eliminated the scenario where workers have to grapple with competing and conflicting priorities (this is, after all, a part of life), the COS supports all workers in navigating such scenarios. Instead of pitting them against one another via the values of power and authority, the COS incents and rewards them via the principles of ownership and alignment; two seemingly pedestrian words that when systematized throughout the organization create vast and sweeping changes in how work gets done and how workers experience it.