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Surviving and thriving in a matrix

March 27, 2013

By Mark Hannum

Before John F. Kennedy challenged NASA to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960’s, innovators at NASA developed a key technology that would enable that achievement—the matrix organization structure.

However, in the mid-1950’s, NASA was anything but innovative. It was, in fact, a bloated, bureaucratic, hierarchical, slow-moving, and inflexible organization. It was highly myopic and silo-ed, and had a very difficult time actually getting expertise out of its experts. Like almost every other organization in the world, particularly in the western world, the command and control structure was organized around “functions.” Not surprising, since the master of command and control—Dwight D. Eisenhower—was the President and Commander-in-Chief at the time. Eisenhower was the architect of D-Day—the ultimate example of planning and logistics accomplished by a functional organization performing to its limits. However, this interpretation of how Eisenhower pulled off D-Day is a gross misunderstanding. Eisenhower really mastered what’s known as an “adhocracy”—a temporary work configuration made up of different experts created to deal with a unique or special problem or project.

What the Eisenhower’s commanders learned to do successfully in WWII was convene flexible teams of experts, give them a unique problem to solve and a short time to work on it with little to no interference from the command structure. When the problem was solved, the team was disbanded and reassigned. Without an “adhocracy,” the invasion of Normandy wouldn’t have succeeded. Without the more permanent equivalent of an “adhocracy”—the “matrix”—NASA wouldn’t have been able to gather the experts together capable of pulling off the Apollo program. By the mid-1960’s, NASA was a lean, flexible, fast-moving, organization made up of experts who were able to collaborate on complex problems very accurately and make important decisions very quickly. By the mid-1970’s, the matrix was spreading into the corporate organizational structure, but not always with the same success.

A matrix is a form of organization and also a form of management. Basically, a matrix brings different types of functional and business expertise together and typically these experts report to multiple authorities. Technically, anytime you work on a temporary committee, task force, or learning team, you’re in a matrix. You have a boss for your regular job, and a boss or authority for your “team” work. Theoretically, both of your bosses have equal say over your time and your duties, and this is where we find many of the flaws, fantasies, breakdowns, and variations on the matrix arise (and will need an entire future post to explain).

Principally, the advantage of a matrix is the speed of execution that’s possible when the right mix of experts from multiple functions and divisions get together to understand and solve complex problems. A matrix is designed to create complete transparency so that information can move up and down the hierarchy as well as across functions and divisions quickly and easily.

Of course, it’s critical to have talented employees who can be part of a collaborative and free-wheeling structure. In a well-oiled matrix, all work is of high value, challenging, and gives all employees a chance to shine. However, we haven’t mentioned one crucial element—management.

With highly skilled, motivated, and challenged workers making democratic, team-based, participative decisions, you only need a few highly skilled managers. Hence, a true matrix organization tends to be flat rather than tall, and the leaders and managers tend to be very experienced and very wise at choosing people for teams and the jobs they need to do.

Unfortunately, many of the advantages of a matrix can also be disadvantages. You need highly skilled and highly collaborative employees that are guided by a “mission” rather than hierarchy. And a matrix organization must also have the right set of rules or cultural values to incentivize collaboration, empower decision making, and facilitate transparent information exchange. However, all of these things go against most training and development employees receive working in functional and product organizations. And the big thing that always seems to glitch up a matrix is having multiple “bosses.”

Managing in a matrix is not about arranging positions or jobs on an organization chart. It requires creating roles, processes, and structures that enable an organization’s mission or purpose and it comes with a unique set of challenges.

So let’s hear it: Are you simply executing a “function” in a job or are you collaborating across the company to solve complex problems?

More Information

My next blog post on Surviving and thriving in a matrix will cover creating roles, processes, and structures and how to tackle the problem of having more than one boss.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Click here to read about our new workshop.


More about Mark

Mark Hannum has over twenty years of experience in organizational and leadership development, systems thinking, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions.

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