The Problem with Matrix Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Our company has a Matrix management structure within a functional structure.  Each department is struggling with execution and achieving target results partially due to resource alignment challenges associated with the functional and matrix organization structure. 

Matrix structures were created, with the best of intention, to resolve priority conflicts.  A team member who is temporarily assigned or part time assigned to a project team has a new built-in conflict.  “Who is my manager?”

Do I take direction from my manager or my project leader?  And when there is conflict between those directions, who wins?

And that is how matrix management was born.  Unfortunately, the end result simply codifies the existence of the team member’s (now) two managers without identifying who the real manager is.  Further, it does little to bring clarity to the project leader’s authority when there are conflicts.  The team member is simply stuck.

Again, the intention to invent Matrix was pure, to identify managerial authority and project leader authority related to the same team member.  Mixed results emerged.  Luckily, projects have limited duration and so the undecided conflicts eventually go away.  Some declared that Matrix was effective and then made the fatal mistake.  The fatal mistake was thinking that Matrix should then be applied to the entire enterprise.

Matrix operates under the false assumption that a team member can have two (or more) managers.  Matrix does little to identify the managerial authorities or the limited cross functional authorities required by a project leader.

This perspective was clearly identified by Elliott Jaques in his research on time-span. The prescription is to dismantle Matrix, establish clear accountability in your managerial relationships and structure cross-functional working relationships for the following roles –

  • Project leader
  • Auditor
  • Monitor
  • Coordinating relationship
  • Service getting relationship
  • Collateral relationship
  • Advisory relationship

These cross functional working relationships accurately identify the limited accountability and limited authority required to successfully move work horizontally through the organization.

If you would like a pdf about cross-functional working relationships, titled “Get Rid of Your Dotted Lines,” just Ask Tom.


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