Working in the Matrix (Organization)

Centuries ago, there were landowners (managers) and there were peasants (workers).  That management structured worked up until roughly ten years ago, when we began to see the rapid move toward the “matrix organization”.

I know… it already sounds like I’m skeptical of the matrix.  I’m not.  But I’ve seen it plenty.  And it doesn’t always work as well as it could.

The idea of a matrix organization is that experienced professionals gather together as part of an enterprise.  Each member of the organization possesses skills which contribute to the work of the enterprise.  Instead of having just one boss (more about that in a minute), they are able to range freely throughout the organization, working on projects as needed, reporting to the project leader for the duration of the project.

It’s actually a great idea with several logistical problems.  Just as a reminder, here’s what the org charts look like, for traditional and matrix organizations:

Matrix Organization Graphic 1


In the traditional organization, everyone has just one boss.  In theory, workers in matrix organizations don’t have just one manager.  However, that’s not realistic, so I’ve drawn it the way it works most often, with one solid line manager per worker.  This manager is responsible for management’s administrative duties – like approving expenses or vacation requests, and conducting performance reviews.

The beauty – and discomfort – of a matrix organization is in the dotted line relationships.  Knowledge workers, with a variety of skills and experiences, might report to Manager A, but have skills that Manager C needs to complete a project this month.  The matrix organization makes this possible, since Manager C is free to contact you and see if you have availability to help with his or her project.

In theory, it’s brilliant.  It means that the enterprise has full access to the skills of its employees.  Rather than hiring a specific skill set for a short term objective, managers can simply pull from existing internal resources.  It’s tricky to implement, but here are a few ideas that will help succeed inside a matrix organization:

Senior leaders need to understand that a matrix organization really is different.  The theory behind a matrix organization sounds like a no-brainer.  Who wouldn’t want to make full use of their labor resources?  A matrix helps keep the organization fresh, with significant synergies that lead to great ideas for how to do things better, faster, and cheaper.  However… while it’s easy to say “we are a matrix” at the top of the organization, you have to plan for how your matrix will work in the trenches.  Senior leaders should put in place systems and processes that encourage and facilitate resource sharing.  At the very least, these processes should include a decision framework that helps managers know when and how to share resources, and a solid policy that prevents workers from feeling they will lose job security.  Finally, senior leaders should strategically share the skills of their own managers, asking and encouraging the question:  “what’s best for the enterprise?”

Managers need to gather knowledge of available skills.  The good news is that most large corporations have databases where employees can log skills and expertise.  The bad news is that employees seldom go to the trouble.  The worst news is – even when employees have entered their skill information – the database might not be set up for search.  (I know it seems ridiculous to spend money to implement an unsearchable database, but MANY corporations have done exactly that.)  If you are a manager looking for skills, you may have to go about it the old fashioned way, by networking.  It’s fairly easy… Identify the skills you need and tell everyone you meet with what you’re looking for.  (In pre-meeting or hallway chit-chat, simply say, “I need someone with a good sense of customer needs to help draft a couple of paragraphs for a new offering.  Know of anyone?”  Be prepared to answer questions about the time and schedule needs for the commitment; no manager is going to give up his/her resource for an unspecified amount of time.

Workers need to network with ALL the managers.  This might seem a little uncomfortable.  After all, there is still a manager who thinks you belong to him/her.  Before you head out to say hello in the executive suite, have the conversation with your manager.  The best type of matrix managers will offer to intro a couple of meet-and-greets, if you don’t already have relationships with other managers.  The worst type will tell you “there’s plenty to do right here.”  If your manager is the hold-em-close type, you may have to tread lightly, but it’s still a good idea to network.  When you hear of a project that could use your skills, send a short email:  “I heard you are starting research on a new product offering.  I’ve launched three similar products and would be happy to help if you need anything.”   If you get some interest, be ready to get specific about how you could help and ask about the roles of others on the project team.

Everyone needs to manage their time, energy and tasks.  This is true for everyone – whether or not they are in a matrix organization.  But time and energy management are particularly important here, for executives to middle managers to individual contributors.  The good news of having dotted-line relationships is that your work stays interesting and energizing.  The bad news?  There is no time to coast.  You’re working with new teams, on unfamiliar problems, applying and expanding your skills.  It’s great for your brain, but can be energy-draining.  When one project slows down, another one is probably heating up.   There will be times when you have more deadlines than you have hours in the day.  Prioritize tasks in terms of desired deadline, possible interference with other deadlines, and frankly, the rank of the “boss” who is counting on the results.  The additional practice in negotiation and delegation will build more of these career-hardening skills.

Working inside a matrix organization is an excellent way to gain skills and experience.  In the best circumstances, you will get to work with a variety of people, on interesting and challenging projects.  But it’s up to you to design a personal strategy that utilizes this remarkable org structure to create the career of your dreams.

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