Matrix structures have fallen in and out of favor since they first emerged in the 1960s yet have increasingly gained traction over the last 20 years amid the mounting pressures of globalization and competition.
Sharing functions across the organization, matrix structures have separate chains of command, one for permanent function-based roles and another for short-term strategic projects. For employees, this means that they have at least one boss, a system which has its pros and cons.
On the plus side, matrices allow global firms to leverage diverse skillsets and knowledge flows, and respond with greater agility to changing market dynamics. As IESE Prof. Mike Rosenberg observes, this flexibility is especially important for large-scale projects.
“Matrix organizations are able to rapidly infuse know-how for complex projects by mobilizing a team of multidisciplinary experts without disrupting their existing functional structure.”
When implemented properly, matrix structures can also boost employee motivation and development since they encourage the input and expertise of all team members to reach a final conclusion.
But what about the downside? By nature, matrices require a dual management system, which means they can be costly, complex and confusing to employees, who may feel caught in the middle of opposing viewpoints and expectations.
So how can companies make the matrix work? Prof. Rosenberg offers six core strategies to help senior managers maximize the matrix:
1. Internalize complexity
International markets have different rhythms, customer expectations and standards, a fact sometimes overlooked by global managers. It’s important that they recognize the inherent complexity of their markets, appreciate market differences and avoid the temptation of oversimplifying with a “one-size-fits-all” model. In short, companies shouldn’t simplify what cannot be simplified.
2. Stay attuned to people’s differences
The rules for business communication and interaction vary around the world, so developing cross-cultural competencies is vital. This starts with empathy – recognizing that the person sitting opposite you might have different perspectives and thought processes – and active listening.
3. Focus on strategic intent
Functional areas often become siloed, each laser-focused on their specific challenges and goals and subject to competing agendas. To avoid this “can’t see the forest through the trees” quandary, senior managers should keep their company’s overall strategic intent top of mind by asking questions like “What would the CEO say?” or “What’s best for our customers?”
4. Use tools to bridge space and time
Matrix organizations often span borders and time zones, resulting in geographically dispersed team members. An integral part of making the matrix work entails being respectful of members’ time when scheduling meetings and making the most of online collaborative tools to enhance engagement and communication.
5. Lead through competence and integrity
Successful executives lead by example by putting the needs of the organization and their customers first, as opposed to focusing on their own KPIs. Professional competence and integrity is paramount in all organizations, big and small, but even more so in complex matrix organizations.
6. Leverage informal networks
The ability to exercise informal authority is crucial in matrix organizations, which is why informal networks are also key. Senior managers in matrix organizations must be adept at “getting things done” by mapping out its political landscape, identifying pockets of power and using their influence to promote corporate objectives.
“Doing Business Globally: Leading in a Matrix Organization” is a four-day program for managers with leadership roles in matrix structures, including regional and country VPs, heads of global business units and directors of client-facing organizations. The next edition will be held on IESE’s New York campus on March 3-6, 2020.
Written by business communicator and editor Suzanne Hogseth