Don’t Give Up on the Matrix Organization – Make It Work

In an effort to deal effectively with increasingly complex market demands and projects, many organizations have turned to matrix organizational models. Matrix organizations, in which two or more chains of command exist in parallel to facilitate resource and information sharing, are intended to improve efficiency and productivity in the face of complexity.  These organization designs can in theory be highly effective in this regard. However, a poorly designed matrix can create more disorder and discord than it solves – unfortunately, this happens too often.

In designing matrix organizations, what can leaders do to proactively minimize conflict and confusion, and optimize performance? We have found the practice of running scenarios to be invaluable in helping executive teams fine-tune the matrix for success.

The Experience is Key

While conceptual discussions and planning about how the matrix is supposed to work is valuable to a point, it can never replace actual experience. In this regard, designing a matrix organization is like any other exercise with applications in real life. Let’s take a commonplace example, such as baking cookies. An experienced cook can tell a novice how to bake a batch of oatmeal cookies, but if the person is really going to retain that knowledge there’s nothing to replace the experience of going to the kitchen, selecting ingredients, measuring, mixing, and monitoring the baking process.

The idea behind running scenarios in a design session is to provide a hands-on environment for understanding how the matrix will work in the organization. When we “get in the kitchen” and start playing through scenarios of how things are going to happen, it helps to fill in the conceptual gaps that a purely intellectual run-though inevitably leaves. As a result, the organization can minimize or avoid power struggles, confusion and overlaps, and other pitfalls associated with matrix structures.

Using Scenarios to Design a Better Functioning Matrix

Not long ago we ran a design session with a large multinational client. This company is set up with a matrix structure. Some of their resources report into a business group, and others report into a country or regional group. Our intention for the session was to work through and clarify how their matrix organization should work for optimal performance.

Much of the discussion had to do with decision rights, direction of work flow, and conflict resolution—many of the issues that often come up in these types of organizations. While intense, the session was enjoyable and highly productive because we didn’t just academically design how we wanted to optimize the matrix. Instead, we played through a variety of options to see what could come of them. The energy in the session increased dramatically as we ran those scenarios.

We would begin a scenario by asking the group to tell us about the issues that concerned them in the organization. They would respond with something like, “Well, every month we have to do an operational review on our performance and we don’t think it’s as effective as it should be.” So then we ask some questions: “Who should conduct that meeting to make it productive? Who should attend it to get the most value?” In some ways we were asking very mundane questions, but they proved to be important ones because as we began to drill down in the questioning process, attendees began to gain a lot of clarity on why certain things weren’t working in their organization, and how they could resolve them.

As we identified various business scenarios, we guided them by mapping out processes, defining roles and responsibilities, sorting out areas of disconnect or conflict, and using sound organization design principles to make objective decisions.

3 Clarifying Questions for Designing Matrix Organizations Using Scenarios

When we work with leadership teams to design matrix organizations, we use scenarios to clarify the following three questions:

  1. How is the matrix supposed to work?
  2. What are the daily situations that need to be addressed?
  3. How can we facilitate work that will help resolve these issues?

Playing through the scenarios in a design session inevitably brings to light “sticking points” around these three questions. From there, we ask clarifying questions around these three points to come up with viable solutions.

Taking the time to run through this type of exercise when designing matrix organizations saves organizations from wasting tremendous amounts of time and resources trying to figure these things out on the fly. By running scenarios ahead of time, leaders can sort out the complexities of a matrix design to learn and understand how things really need to work to take full advantage of all the matrix has to offer. 

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