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Making the matrix work

Published on 12/04/10 at 08:30am
Jonathan Dancer and Jonathan Raine
Matrix working

The idea of the ‘Matrix Organisation’ has caught on in recent years, but what is it exactly, and what are the essential skills and principles required to operate successfully within one? defines a matrix organisation as “a multi-functional team structure that facilitates horizontal flow of authority, in addition to its normal (vertical) flow, by abandoning the ‘one person, one boss’ rule of conventional organisations”. In other words, by empowering lateral decision-making within the organisation, some of the disadvantages of a conventional hierarchical structure can be eliminated.

The matrix approach helps to counteract the  problems created by the increasing complexity and specialisation of today’s organisations. Having specialist departments creates highly focused units, but this can lead to the ‘silo mentality’ which can restrict co-operation and the flow of information. Matrix working therefore aims to get round this problem, and ultimately create a structure that can be more responsive to changing business needs.

Establishing the structure is relatively straightforward, but what about the impact on people operating within it? As Kevan Hall, a well-respected author on the subject of matrix management comments:

“Matrix organisation structures reflect the reality of today’s external and internal business complexity. But the matrix structure itself solves nothing - it is the way people operate the structure that makes the matrix organisation succeed or fail.”

The key advantage of a matrix organisation is that it enables employees to be directed to where they are most needed. Before implementing such a fundamental change to the shape and operations of a business, it is vital to ensure that it fits with the needs and strategies of the organisation and it fits the competencies of the people within it.

So does the Matrix structure suit every organisation? The simple answer is no - but you can ask a few key questions to find out whether a business should or shouldn’t adopt this approach:

• What is our business model - does it require the complexity of a matrix structure to operate effectively?

• What is our environment - how do our competitors operate? Have they adopted matrix structures and how effective have they been?

• What is our culture - can it support the changes in approach indicated by a matrix structure?

• What is our workforce - does it have the ability and flexibility to change?

• What is the cost - is there a business rationale for entering into the upheaval required to adopt matrix working?

• What is the scope - might there be areas within the business that would benefit more than others from matrix working?

In many ways, a Matrix Organisation can be seen as an environment that enables the project management of multiple simultaneous projects.  Whilst project management skills are built essentially upon management best practice, there are certain idiosyncrasies of project management that mean a shift in focus and emphasis.

As a workstream or project leader, you usually have to lead without authority, which is a specific skill in itself. Paula Martin, a specialist in project management says: “Authority is a vastly overrated commodity, because the truth is we can’t make anyone do anything, even with authority. We can sometimes coerce and gain compliance, when people decide, usually reluctantly, to do what we want them to do.”

Martin suggests that it is by generating co-operation that makes a project a success.  Co-operation generates enthusiasm and ownership - two key aspects that can be missing when we merely delegate a task. She goes on to identify four key principles for Project Managers:

• Ensure the appropriate level of organisational commitment

• Use collaborative techniques throughout the planning and monitoring process

• Manage external stakeholders as a priority over internal management

• Manage the process of team development towards high performance

The Matrix system at work in pharma

For most of us, the implementation of a matrix structure is a new experience and there are certain preparations we can make in advance to help with the transition.

Pharmaceutical companies have found the matrix approach highly successful in dealing with an evolving customer environment that demands a greater focus on key account management.

Increasingly, product managers are finding themselves in the role of project manager, with limited direct authority, complex and large-scale tasks to deliver against tight deadlines - and increasingly diverse resources to marshal. Frequently, they may not see themselves as project managers, as the nature of the work may not fall neatly into the category of ‘project’. Indeed their managers may not see this either, and fail to allow sufficient empowerment, resources, training or support to deliver in this challenging internal environment.

The organisations which shine as examples in planning and executing the transition to a matrix approach proactively, are the ones that will see the long term benefits of change coming through as competitive advantage.

Organisational leaders must be prepared to change themselves if they want to truly embrace the matrix approach. They will need to adopt some new practices, and also make some important sacrifices. Managers must be prepared to introduce new systems and processes as well as set the right boundaries of accountability and responsibility. In addition they must accept the need to give up a significant amount of control.

Even compared to a conventional organisation, a great degree of rigour is required in defining roles, responsibilities and specific team contributions. Indeed, these elements are the stock in trade of matrix management and are often short changed.

Within a matrix organisation, teams of individuals will be asked to operate semi-autonomously, bringing together the necessary skills to accomplish their separate tasks and missions, and generally without hierarchical power to support them. It is truly an environment of high accountability, where empowerment must not be diluted.

This is no place for the ‘long screwdriver’, and attempts to micromanage the operation will almost certainly engender a toxic mix of frustration and inefficiency.

The role of the individual

In turn, the structural and process elements of the organisation must be combined with a clear definition of organisational objectives, and the appropriate mix of individual skills, capabilities and talents. This requirement points clearly to the next essential element, i.e., it is vital to make the appropriate resource and time investment in talent management because individual accountability, capability and effective team working are ultimately critical to success.

Learning and development is therefore an absolute priority for any organisation truly embracing a matrix approach. The identification of the right individuals to lead and participate in teams, and the development of the right skills and timely completion of gaps within the organisation are all important areas to consider in establishing an optimal learning culture and development infrastructure.

Most large businesses have dedicated learning and development teams, which play a pivotal role in ensuring the delivery of the full potential of the matrix organisation.

The individual is key to the effective running of matrix machinery, and the approach places certain, sometimes heavy, demands on the people working within it. People must be especially resilient and able to cope with uncertainty.  They will encounter conflicting priorities and be pulled in many different directions at once.

Whilst everyone in the organisation still reports to a line manager, in most cases, that manager will not be a subject matter expert in the specific projects in which their reports are engaged. Because of this, upward management is a key priority for anyone operating in a matrix, whether they are leading a project or simply a project team member.

The Matrix team

Individuals, however, rely entirely on the teams they inhabit. Successful team working is critical to success and conflict resolution, working across geographies and cultures has invariable challenges.  This is especially true given the sometimes political nature of these organisations and the reporting structures that separate line managers from the specific tasks of their direct reports.

Once a matrix organisation has bedded down and is running smoothly, it is straightforward to recruit new talent to operate within it - it is relatively easy for an individual joining a new organisation to adapt to a system that is already in place.

When an organisation sets out to adopt a matrix approach, team members will experience the entire system changing around them. The journey to implement a matrix approach can be long, involved, and present significant challenges to those within the existing structure. The process of change cannot be undertaken lightly, and change management principles will need to be applied rigorously to help smooth the transition.

The pharmaceutical industry is familiar with change, both in our customer markets and within our own organisations, and whatever individuals say about their willingness to embrace change, in practice most people resist it in one way or another.  Kurt Lewin’s model of change identifies three distinct stages of change: Unfreeze, Change and Refreeze. Just as it is impossible to reshape a block of solid ice, an organisation is surely locked into its current state by many forces that are capable of resisting any attempt to change its shape. Once the organisation has become fluid and malleable to change through a process of ‘unfreezing’, it is essential to lock-in the change by ‘refreezing’.

As the organisation goes through the three stages, different challenges emerge. The first stage is invariably uncomfortable for an organisation, as it involves confronting the status quo and accepting that ‘what has gone before’ will not take the organisation forward. Some describe this stage as a ‘controlled crisis’ or sometimes a ‘burning platform’.

The next stage can be long and involved, as individuals struggle to adapt. Keeping strong connections within teams is vital at this stage which can be extremely intensive for managers, as good and frequent communication is vital. The final stage involves locking in the changes. Celebrating success and achieving a period of stability is essential as a punctuation mark and respite before the next wave of change.

In guiding managers to consider change as three distinct stages, Lewin enables them to take the appropriate steps at each juncture to smooth and accelerate the process. It also highlights the skills that must come to the forefront to support each stage.

John Kotter, a professor at the Harvard Business School is a well-known author on change. He has eight key principles that fit well with Lewin’s model:

• Increase urgency

• Build the guiding team

• Get the vision right

• Communicate for buy-in

• Empower action

• Create short-term wins

• Don’t let up

• Make change stick

The body of literature on change is substantial, but no amount of reading can truly prepare us for the intensity of the process. The most common fallacy is that others will support a change initiative ‘just because it is good for the organisation’. Of course, on closer examination, we can see that this is unlikely to be the case. People are generally motivated by self-interest, and some may perceive the removal of the status quo as genuinely harmful to their interests.

As Kotter makes clear, a sense of appropriate pace, excellent communication skills and tenacity are the key attributes for a change manager. Many successful change managers know that it is worth starting the change process in a part of the organisation that offers the lowest resistance. Implementation is key and there are a number of steps to bear in mind to ensure that it runs smoothly (see box, left).

In Conclusion

Delivering in a matrix environment is a demanding task for any manager. They may have to a manage within a matrix system, and simultaneously maintain those areas of the business which turn out to be resistant to matrix management principles.

The benefits of a matrix approach in terms of enhanced interfunctional co-operation, flexibility, accountability and improved decision making are all clear.

When it runs well, a matrix organisation also frees senior executives from micro-management and liberates their time for high quality strategic thinking.

The disadvantages can include increased political tensions, the development of overly strong group identification, losing sight of organisational goals, and higher overall costs to cover the additional salary costs of Project Managers. The matrix approach is well-established now and has proven its worth in many diverse environments from aerospace to management consultancy, and it is clearly an appropriate model for many parts of pharmaceutical businesses. Whether it is right for your own unit though is a matter for reflection and sound judgement.

If your business is embarking on the journey to matrix management, be prepared for an interesting ride.

As Aristotle said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Jonathan Dancer is MD of red kite consulting group, a pharmaceutical management consultancy and Jonathan Raine is a management trainer at PinT, a training and development organisation. They co-deliver the PM Society’s PriMe Leadership Modules. For more information please visit:


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