Making the Matrix Organization Work is More About Leadership than Structure

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In our best attempt to run our household most effectively, my wife and I have naturally taken on CxO type roles—me the CTO, and her the CFO / COO.  Given my oversight over all things technology-related, my organizationally naïve daughter recently made the strong pitch for accelerating her timetable for getting a phone.  To which, regardless of her power of persuasion, I responded, “we need to bring in the COO—I mean mom—into this decision”.  And just like that, my 12-year-old learned the challenges and advantages of navigating the matrix organization and its defining characteristic—an employee reporting to two bosses.

When you ask most executives about how they feel about matrixed organization structures, responses usually vary from ambivalence to full disdain.  There are few cheerleaders out there for this structure. Most critique it because it blurs accountability and slows down decision-making.  At Summit, our experience suggests that those outcomes are more a function of poor leadership, not the structure itself.

A key advantage of the matrixed organization is the resource efficiency it can provide, minimizing the amount of redundancy in resources in a multi-product and/or multi-market business.  However, just calling it an efficiency play short-changes its full value.  Implemented well, the structure enables better decision-making and less risk of relitigation of previous decisions made because players are required to have multiple interests in mind when making decisions.  It also forces leaders to expand their perspectives and requires that they show up as business leaders first and functional subject matter experts last.  Taken together and in aggregate across an organization, these are essential ingredients to build organization agility required to navigate complex and seemingly contradictory business conditions.

As such, it has stood the test of time, whether we dress it up in more modern terms like an agile design, journey teams, or pods, the fundamental concept is the same: navigating shared reporting lines to a function and to a business unit/project/product leader. The reality is that the complexity and uncertainty of today’s business environment require some form of matrix management to scale efficiently and effectively.

To be clear, making it work most effectively takes effort, intention, and most importantly trust and alignment among the executive team. It also requires a new leadership muscle compared to what most have been taught or exposed to over the last 50 years. Instead of the more traditional hierarchical organizations–it’s more about influence, negotiation, organization savvy and compromise than command and control.  None of those behaviors work, however, without one key ingredient that most organizations struggle the most with, which from our experience limits their ability to scale—namely discipline.  Four factors that speak to this discipline that we see as most critical include the following:

  • Successful execution in a matrixed structure is first and foremost the job of the matrixed leaders, not the matrixed employee.  So many times I hear, “Bob has to learn to navigate the matrix better”.  The first priority, however, must be for Bob’s matrixed managers to be fully aligned on priorities; their lack of alignment should not be the burden of the matrixed employee.  This belief highlights why many matrixed organizations don’t work well. More often than not, most leaders rarely spend as much time managing across as they do managing up to their boss or down their own teams. Yet that’s the relationship that’s most critical to making the matrix work.  Yet, even when we get better at this, the second dimension of matrix management is essential…
  • The successful matrixed employee must demonstrate leadership courage.  Matrixed structures work best in cultures that support and reinforce transparency and open and honest dialogue underpinned by a commitment to psychological safety. Employees must possess the skill and courage to call it out when feeling caught between two misaligned leaders.  Giving feedback is tough enough — giving it upward, not to just one, but to two bosses is even tougher.  Regardless, it is essential that conditions for that feedback exist; otherwise, execution quickly grinds to a halt.
  • Commit to the 2:1 check-in meetings.  While 1:1 meetings between managers and their team members have become a staple of business leadership, they are at best insufficient, and at worst counterproductive in a matrixed environment.  1:1s with each manager runs the risk of exacerbating misalignment and must be balanced by occasional 2:1 sessions where all stakeholders are hearing and sharing the same information, messages, and decisions as an alignment insurance policy.
  • Focus on decision rights, not dotted and solid line reporting.  Earlier in my career, I wanted to focus on where the solid versus dotted reporting lines. In other words, who am I accountable for versus who do I support.  Yet that clarity was never really sufficient.  In an agile organization, the unit of measure of execution is the decision made, not the reporting structure.  While frameworks like RACI or RAPID are meant to be applied to sets of recurring usually cross-function decisions to minimize having to make up decision rules every time, the concept is essential in a matrixed environment.  It’s so much less about the policy and much more about a language and a mindset that can be brought to key decisions, particularly when alignment at the top is missing.  A practical, not dogmatic approach to applying the model usually is what distinguishes between when the framework is truly adopted and internalized versus shelved as academic.

Successful execution in a matrixed organization is undeniably more challenging than in a purely functional one. Yet companies can rarely scale beyond a single product or geography without adopting some version of it.  Making it work requires a committed, disciplined approach by leadership and without exception, will fail if left up to matrixed employees to figure out to better navigate it themselves. The good news is that if like my daughter, you’ve grown up with two parental figures, you have practiced working in this environment since you were a toddler. My daughter will get her phone in six months—a decision that my wife and I are very much aligned with.