Making the Matrix Work: How Matrix Managers Engage People and Cut Through Complexity

Making the Matrix Work: How Matrix Managers Engage People and Cut Through Complexity

by Kevan Hall


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781904838425
Publisher: Quercus
Publication date: 02/07/2013
Pages: 228
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kevan Hall is the founder and CEO of Global Integration Ltd. , a consultancy specializing in skills required to work in complex, international organizations, with offices in the UK and California. He works with companies around the world including Microsoft, Coca-Cola, GlaxoSmithKline, and Vodafone.
He has practical experience in line management, manufacturing operations, HR, training, and strategic and market planning, mostly at Mars where he worked in Strasbourg as head of training and education from Vladivostock to Ireland. He manages his own cross-cultural and remote organization and is a regular speaker at international conferences. His work is profiled at

Read an Excerpt

Making the Matrix Work

How Matrix Managers Engage People and Cut Through Complexity

By Kevan Hall

Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Greystones Trust
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-904838-43-2



Welcome to the matrix, where multiple bosses, competing goals, influence without authority, and accountability without control are the norm. It is a world where skills, not structure, are the drivers of business and personal success.

At its simplest, a matrix reflects the reality that work no longer fits within the traditional "vertical" structures of function and geography. Today, work is much more "horizontal": it cuts across silos and even extends outside the organization to include suppliers, customers, and other business partners.

Most large organizations now operate some kind of matrix organizational structure in order to serve global customers, coordinate international supply chains, and run integrated internal systems and business functions.

In a matrix, we routinely work with colleagues from different locations, business units, and cultures in cross-functional and virtual teams. Matrix working is now everywhere – and it requires different skills in leadership, cooperation, and personal effectiveness.


Matrix management is not the latest management and consulting fad; it has been around since the 1970s. As soon as organizations have multiple locations, countries, or business units that require coordination, some form of matrix evolves, even if only at group level. As organizations become more integrated and share systems, resources, or talent, the matrix evolves so that it reaches deeper into the organization.

Structure should always follow strategy. The four key advantages that organizations seek when introducing a matrix structure are:

[] To break the silos: to increase cooperation and communication across traditional vertical silos and to unlock resources and talent that are currently inaccessible to the rest of the organization.

[] To deliver "horizontal work" more effectively: to serve global customers, manage supply chains that extend outside the organization, and run integrated business regions, functions, and processes.

[] To be able to respond more flexibly: to reflect the importance in the structure of both the global and the local, the business and the function, and to respond quickly to changes in priorities.

[] To develop broader people capabilities: a matrix helps us develop individuals with broader perspectives and skills, who can deliver value across the business and manage in a more complex and interconnected environment.

The business logic is compelling, but introducing a matrix does mean a step up in complexity in the way people work together and many organizations have struggled with implementation. Some even claim to have abandoned the matrix (although in reality they usually just move to a simpler form). The disadvantages they cite include:

[] Lack of accountability.

[] Unclear goals and roles.

[] Delays in decision making (too many people getting involved).

[] Increase in bureaucracy (a proliferation of meetings and committees).

[] Increase in uncertainty and conflict.

Both the advantages and disadvantages of the matrix are fundamentally about people and the way they work together. Delivering the advantages and avoiding the disadvantages cannot be achieved through a structural change alone, only by building the skills and mindset necessary to cut through the complexity.


Organizations that ignore skills and seek a structural solution on its own can remain stuck in an endless cycle of reorganizations, which not only fail to solve the problem, but make it worse by disrupting the networks and relationships that really get things done.

In my work with over 50,000 people in 300 major multinationals in more than 40 countries, I have learned that structural change solves nothing, and that an excessive focus on structure has been positively damaging to the development of matrix management. Much more important are the networks, communities, teams, and groups that form within a matrix to get things done. Structural change is a blunt, slow, and imprecise tool for forcing change: It leads to the structure going too deep into the organization. A matrix structure usually only adds value for two or three senior to middle management layers. For the 85 percent or more of people who have purely local jobs (even in the most global organizations), the matrix is likely to cause unnecessary complexity.

[] It leads to endless reorganizations. Because we are looking for a structural solution to a problem that can only be solved through different skills and ways of working, we keep tinkering with the structure in the vain hope of success.

[] It leads to a lack of emphasis and underinvestment in building the leadership, collaboration, and individual skills that are vital to make the matrix work.

Skilled people can make almost any structure succeed, but even the most elegant structure will fail if the people within it do not have the skills to make it work.


Effective organizational change flows from strategy to structure to systems to skills. All four waves of change need to be completed and aligned in a successful matrix implementation.

Once organizations are clear about their strategy, they can then focus on the formal structure and the high-level people moves necessary to make their goals happen.

At the same time, many organizations begin a necessary but expensive and time-consuming journey toward common systems. A full-scale SAP, Oracle, or Microsoft Business implementation can take several years and have a major, organization-wide impact on business processes such as product lifecycles, customer relationship management (CRM), supply chain and human capital management. In a large, global organization a full SAP implementation may take five years or more. Depending on the size of your business, and including employee costs, such an implementation could cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.

Nevertheless, many organizations do little beyond announcing the structural changes, and fail to consider how to build the skills to cope with this higher level of complexity. Insufficient thought is given initially to changing criteria for selection and promotion, rewards, capabilities, and training and development to reflect the new environment.

A successful matrix implementation requires the embedding of strategy, structure, systems, and skills. A failure to manage change in any of these four areas can lead to a failure of the overall implementation.

In my experience, many organizations invest heavily in structure and systems and neglect the development of skills. When people find it difficult to operate the matrix, they may blame the structure and reorganize again, instead of realizing they lack the necessary skills.


Because authority and power are shared between multiple bosses in a matrix, they become less effective as ways of getting things done. Individuals with multiple bosses have to manage tradeoffs and make decisions about where to invest their time and enthusiasm. Managers can feel as if they have lost the authority and control they had in the simpler, functional, single-manager structure of the past.

Two common complaints from managers new to matrix working illustrate this concern:

[] "How can I be accountable for something I don't control?"

[] "How can I get things done without authority?"

I will introduce some tools and concepts for dealing with these challenges later, but for now let's think about the implications of these statements. Are these managers really saying that they cannot get things done without direct control and hierarchical authority?

We call the people who raise these objections "matrix victims." Their resistance is often rooted in a lack of confidence in their skills and capability to get things done without traditional control and authority.

In a modern organization, with skilled people, an overreliance on control and power can in fact be counterproductive. It can create unwilling followership at best and is more likely to provoke disengagement, resentment, and avoidance. A hierarchical and control-based individual or corporate culture will really struggle to make a matrix work.

During the implementation of a matrix organization, companies such as IBM and Cisco reported losing around 20 percent of their managers through a combination of structural change and turnover of those who did not fit the new way of working. Most organizations see this turnover as an essential part of bringing about the necessary change in style and embedding matrix behaviors. If your leaders are overreliant on hierarchy and control, they may not be suitable for managing in the matrix.

This shift in power from the structure of the past to the shared authority and more complex skills of the matrix does not go unopposed. Despite the reality that work has become more horizontal, many organizations have struggled to break the power of vertical silos. Traditionally, authority, control, and power rested in vertical functional and geographic silos; and they still provide the route for career progression for most people. Consciously or unconsciously, powerful vertical managers may resist the loss of power to horizontal processes and reporting lines.


While the move from structure to skills can be uncomfortable for managers, it can provide a significant upside in employee engagement, critical in all organizations. High levels of engagement increase "discretionary effort," meaning that people are prepared to go the extra mile to achieve their goals. Greater engagement correlates with high levels of performance, retention, and learning.

Matrix structures often get a bad press for increasing complexity and even conflict, but they do allow us to engage some powerful drivers of employee engagement.

This book will show that matrix success requires individuals to take more ownership of their goals and roles; creates broader and more meaningful jobs; requires higher levels of trust; increases communication and networking; and provides new opportunities for learning and development.

A well-run matrix should enable higher levels of employee engagement. A poorly managed matrix, however, can create matrix victims who feel disempowered in the face of competing goals, lower levels of clarity, multiple bosses, and a more complex working environment.


We cannot expect managers and individuals to be comfortable and effective in this new environment without giving them the skills they need to be successful.

Traditional management prioritizes clarity, predictability, and control. In a matrix, we need to be able to balance this with the ability to tolerate ambiguity, manage change, and decentralize control.

Individuals have been used to clear goals and roles. In a matrix, they need to take more ownership and leadership of their own activities and collaborate with a more diverse and distributed set of colleagues.

People require an expanded toolkit to help them move from the hard to the soft, from the concrete to the ambiguous and back again, depending on the situation. They need to be able to cut through complexity and engage others to get things done.

In this book I will introduce some concepts, tools, and examples to help in four critical areas of matrix leadership and matrix working:

[] Leading people beyond the limits of clarity.

[] Streamlining cooperation: being connected and effective.

[] Getting more control by giving it away.

[] Building the matrix mindset and skillset.


Traditional management emphasizes clear goals, roles, and direction. What could be wrong with that?

In a matrix, we deliberately trade some clarity for increased flexibility. We need to balance competing goals and priorities – and the balance required today may be different to the best balance for tomorrow.

I have worked with several organizations that have responded to a matrix structure with lengthy role definitions and ARCI analysis (a process for clarifying roles and job descriptions). At times this can be helpful, but it can also lead to an expectation that the new world is as clear as the old. In a more complex, flexible, and fast-changing environment, can we afford the kind of people who need their boxes to be tightly drawn and who want comprehensive job descriptions, or does this become an unrealistic expectation and an unnecessary constraint?

People want clear goals, but where an individual has multiple bosses, that individual may be the only person to have a full understanding of their role, priorities, and constraints. Goals set in January to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bounded) may be too simplistic for a complex, fast-changing environment and may be out of date by February.

Matrix managers need to create sufficient clarity and alignment to be effective, and this book introduces tools for doing this. At the same time, we need to give people the ability to manage tradeoffs, dilemmas, and conflicts, as these become more likely in matrix working. If we could completely define and align goals and roles, we would not need a matrix: we could simply cascade our perfect view of the world down from the top.

Employee engagement comes when individuals feel a sense of ownership of meaningful goals, not from rigid job descriptions and goals set by others. By giving people more freedom to shape their goals and their role as well as a greater capability for dealing with ambiguity, we can build even higher levels of ownership, commitment, and engagement.


As we have seen, one of the critical reasons for introducing a matrix is to increase cooperation and communication across traditional silos. To encourage this, companies regularly accompany a matrix implementation with some form of "one company" or "one team" initiative.

But be careful what you wish for! Matrix implementations are often followed by an increase in the number of meetings, conference calls, and emails and a slowdown in the speed of decision making. People become more connected to a wider range of colleagues and reporting lines and the risk is that all of these additional connections invite you to their meetings, copy you on their emails, and involve themselves in your decision making.

At the same time, the cost of cooperation increases sharply. Matrix teams can often involve high levels of travel and more diverse groups of colleagues. Coordinating diaries for meetings, conference calls, and webinars can be a challenge, particularly across time zones.

Normally, economics dictate that when the cost of something increases, the demand for it decreases. However, when we introduce a matrix, often both the cost and the amount of cooperation increase together – and companies rarely budget for these increases in travel, meetings, and communication costs.

In addition, companies typically focus on increasing "teamwork," but teamwork is not the only form of cooperation – and is, in fact, often the most complex and expensive way to organize cooperation within a matrix. There is tremendous value in understanding when teamworking does not add value, as the alternatives can speed up decision making and delivery and improve accountability and job satisfaction.

People who are engaged in what they do enjoy high-quality working relationships with their colleagues, but they also value meaningful work. Nobody enjoys sitting in unnecessary meetings or wading through irrelevant emails. By cutting out unnecessary cooperation, we can create more time to focus on the critical relationships and areas of cooperation.

This book will look at four distinctly different ways of cooperating in the matrix: networks, communities, teams, and groups. Each of these four modes of cooperation should be used for specific types of goals; each needs to be established, managed, and engaged differently and should be supported by different types of communication technology. An understanding of the alternatives in cooperation will help you be both connected and effective.


Managers new to the matrix can often find that their trust and confidence in their people are undermined. They are increasingly working with people they do not know well and who they do not have direct control over. They become reliant on others for their success, which many managers find uncomfortable.

Global Integration's clients are leading multinationals and they rarely report a systemic problem with trust. However, there are many factors in matrix working that can subtly undermine trust and confidence: cultural differences and communicating through technology can cause misunderstandings; competing goals can cause conflicts; and a lack of face-to-face time can delay the process of developing trust with new colleagues.


Excerpted from Making the Matrix Work by Kevan Hall. Copyright © 2013 Greystones Trust. Excerpted by permission of Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1

Part I Clarity 13

2 Trading Clarity for Flexibility 14

3 Islands of Clarity 21

4 Owning Your Role 32

5 Getting Aligned with Others 47

6 Difficult Decisions 64

7 Dealing with Daily Dilemmas 79

8 Creating and Coping with Conflict 95

Part II Cooperation 105

9 More Cooperation and Communication 106

10 The Four Ways of Working 118

11 Cooperating through Technology and Social Media 136

Part III Control 153

12 Accountability without Control 154

13 Power and Influence without Authority 165

14 From Empowerment to Freedom 184

15 Building, Maintaining, and Repairing Trust 198

Part IV The Matrix Mindset and Skillset 217

16 The Matrix Mindset and Skillset 218

Acknowledgments 225

Index 227

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