Author: Simon Tarver
For many years, large-scale businesses have been turning to the often criticised corporate matrix structure to help to break down silos, create flexibility and ensure resources are used as effectively as possible. However, without a commitment to building strong teams that are capable of engaging with stakeholders across all departments, the structure simply will not work.
What is a matrix structure?
In its simplest form, a matrix organisational structure provides a mix of self-contained units and lateral teams. This model helps to provide greater flexibility in terms of chains of command, while at the same time ensuring staff are able to develop their skills across multiple disciplines.
It means that in practice, individuals within a team may have more than one boss, with differing levels of influence depending upon their position within the business. Examples of this can be found in many large and multinational organisations, which often operate at local, regional, national and international levels. As such, while individual team members will often report to a direct manager, there are multiple lines of communication between all members of staff that mean collaboration is key to the fulfilment of even the most basic of work functions.
Due to the global nature of many large corporations, this form of multi-line management allows for a more coordinated approach to the delivery of large-scale projects, many of which will make use of skills from separate departments.
However, one of the difficulties with this management structure can be in ensuring staff do not become insular and see their role purely within the realm of the function which makes up the mainstay of their job. This can result in the formation of unwanted silos, as individuals fail to see the benefits of working outside of their preferred function, hindering the ability of teams to deliver on their goals.
It also means that the role of the manager can become blurred, leading to less effective leadership, as individuals do not feel they have full control over all aspects of their team - something that may be alien to many corporate leaders that are used to a more traditional, vertical approach to team integration and design.
Herman Vantrappen, managing director of strategic advisory firm Akordeon, and Frederic Wirtz, head of organisation advisory business The Little Group, wrote in an article for Harvard Business Review that the key to a successful matrix is to clearly define the structure from the outset and ensure these systems are only used when they are the best way to achieve overarching business aims.
A sparing use of the matrix structure can therefore often be far more beneficial to achieving these goals than a blanket rollout across the board. For example, Vantrappen and Wirtz describe the situation of a regional finance manager who must coordinate closely with subsidiaries in many different countries. In this case, it would be sensible to place this individual in a matrix managerial role, with multiple lines of reporting that ensure there is a single point of contact for all. This helps to make the disparate team members into a cohesive unit and ensures everyone is working to achieve the same purpose.
The role of teams in matrix organisations
The ability of individuals from both different teams and different disciplines within a business to operate as a cohesive whole plays an important role in determining how successful a matrix structure will be.
To achieve positive results, all team members must operate with the same purpose, otherwise conflicts will arise and overall productivity will be lost. Creating solid lines of communication is also important to ensure all staff are on the same page and feel comfortable discussing issues that would otherwise lead to conflict.
In Patrick Lencioni's book 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team', he sets out some of the significant stumbling blocks that corporations need to overcome in order to foster a stronger collaborative ethic, many of which will be a factor in ensuring teamwork is not diminished through potentially blurred lines of command.
He states that the fundamental issues that impact effective team building within an organisation include:
- Fear of trust: An unwillingness to appear vulnerable within the group.
- Fear of conflict: The creation of artificial harmony, which does little to defuse conflict.
- Lack of commitment: Feigning buy-in to group decisions means not all team members are working towards the same goal.
- Avoidance of accountability: Not calling to account those team members that may be failing to deliver results can breed a mindset of low standards.
- Inattention to results: Placing oneself and personal goals ahead of the team's aims will cause unrest.
Creating strong teams
According to Bruce Tuckman's 1965 team-development model 'Forming Storming Norming Performing', the development of a strong team that is able to deliver on its promise does not take place overnight; it takes a period of effort to adapt to change and to then begin performing at the team's maximum potential.
Each stage of the process throws up a new set of problems that teams must overcome in order to move forward. At first, during the 'forming' stage, teams will generally suffer from several of the key dysfunctions as highlighted in Lencioni's work - a situation which, in turn, will result in the 'storming' stage, as these issues are brought to a head and resolved.
Once teams have been established for a long enough time to have overcome these initial difficulties, they will then enter the 'norming' stage, which often leads to a general ramping up of output, productivity and stability as a cohesive unit.
Finally, when well-established teams are supported correctly and all members are working towards the same purpose and goals, this results in entry to the 'performing' stage - a situation where all are working as one and the best results are likely to be seen.
However, any disruption to the structure of a team - such as through the creation of multiple chains of command that are not all acting with a single purpose - can reset this process, pushing back the ability of individual team members to work to their full. A strong team ethos and a clear understanding of overarching goals is therefore imperative when planning the rollout of a matrix structure.
Managers should bear in mind the attributes of staff when determining who will work best within a matrix setup, as not all individuals are ideally suited to working in this manner. Business leaders should take into account the current culture within existing silos and hand-pick those individuals that demonstrate the core key skills of strong communication, leadership and an ability to act effectively both within the team setting and autonomously when required as being the best fit for this management style.
As a result, there can be no no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a successful matrix, instead there needs to be a thoughtful use of this practice to deliver positive gains in areas where a collaborative approach to business functionality is essential to securing good results.
By embracing the lessons of starting small, only implementing these structures when they provide a clear organisational benefit and committing to ensuring individuals with the best fit are drafted into this model, companies could see clear and lasting benefits from the uptake of a matrix structure.
To find out more, read 'Building Trust in Teams' and view our Scaling Talent 'Improving Team Performance' modules
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