What Is Matrix Management? — A Guide to Matrix Management

In this guide we answer the question: what is matrix management?

What’s more, we show how today’s businesses, which require greater flexibility and often need to share finite resources, can benefit from the matrix management structure.

Furthermore, we explain why traditional approaches to management, although often valid, are too rigid for the modern organisation where projects are often vehicles for delivering business change.

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Background

For many organisations, line management structure is principally based on function and resource supply not on the resource demands needed to satisfy the delivery of projects or large-scale organisational change.

Since many organisations continually implement business change, the use of project teams is widespread, which results in project and line management structures coexisting in the form of the matrix management structure.

Unless properly introduced, the matrix management organisation runs the risk that employees will receive conflicting instructions. Indeed, some would argue that matrix structures have proved all but unmanageable, with dual-reporting leading to conflict and confusion, and a loss of accountability arising from overlapping responsibilities.

But first, let’s get back to the question: What is matrix management? And, perhaps of greater importance, what does matrix management mean in practice?

What Is Matrix Management?

The project management organisation is based on a customer-supplier setting where the customer specifies the desired result and the supplier provides resources and skills to accomplish the specified outcome.

What’s more, the project is a temporary organisation that is created for the sole purpose of delivering change. Typically, project resources are supplied by line management.

In contrast, corporate organisations are structured in different ways, depending on their aims and culture, to allow the responsibilities of different functions and processes to be clearly allocated to departments and employees. For example, tall, flat, hierarchical, and centralised and decentralised.

The Project Organisation

The matrix management structure showing the difference between line and project responsibility.

The Matrix Management Structure

Since the division of work and the methods of grouping seen in line management structures tend to be permanent, organisations are increasingly adopting more flexible organisational structures based on project teams.

The matrix management structure offers the advantages of flexibility, greater security and control of the project, plus opportunities for employee development.

Typically, project teams are set up for delivering change. And, the needs of the customer — whether internal or external to the organisation — may draw upon resources from different parts of the business.

However, when implementing organisational change it is very likely that the organisation’s specialists are the most valuable resource.

For this reason, it is often necessary to share their expertise because duplication is impractical or cannot be justified.

The Benefits of the Matrix Management Structure

Any organisation planning to implement change can benefit from the matrix management structure for the following reasons.

1. Project teams are set up on a temporary and finite basis for the fulfilment of customers’ needs.

Once a project is completed team members are reassigned to other work. Knowledge and expertise is retained by the organisation.

2. Project teams are highly suited to people working on a common task or project such as the introduction of new business processes and the associated information systems.

3. Project teams are dynamic and innovative structures that can view problems in a different way because specialists are brought together in a new environment.

Individuals are chosen according to the needs of the project.

4. Project managers are directly responsible for completing the project scope within a specific time-scale and budget.

In uncertain times, the project manager will need strong leadership skills to make sure the organisation pulls in the same direction. Empowerment, through decision-making responsibility, makes it easier for the project manager to accept and make a success of the project.

Responsibilities, Authority and People — The Downside of Matrix Management

However, there are a number of potential problems with matrix organisations.

These problems include:

  • a feeling of ambiguity caused by employees moving from one project to another as required by their line manager,
  • a conflict of loyalty between line managers and project managers over the allocation of resources — for instance, where groups neglect their usual duties and responsibilities,
  • the outcome of dual reporting is the loss of unity of command, which can lead to problems of coordination and prioritisation,
  • project managers may experience problems of authority over their team members, especially if they are from another department or team,
  • project management may fail to gain the support of other functional managers,
  • if teams have a lot of independence they can be difficult to monitor, which is why the agreements between project and line management are essential, and
  • costs can be increased if more project managers are created through the use of project teams.

Matrix Management As a Source of Conflict

What’s more, if an employee is receiving instructions from more than one senior manager then authority is undermined.

Dual command is a source of conflict that leads to a loss of discipline and threatens order and stability.

However, such cases for conflict are less relevant if managed effectively. Besides, the principles of hierarchical management are still relevant to matrix management and the project management organisation.

For instance, the need for people to act together with unity of action, the exercise of authority and the need for discipline — effective team leadership — are just as important to the matrix management structure as to traditional line management.

Successful Matrix Management

Matrix management can offer greater flexibility when businesses implement organisational change.

However, for matrix management to succeed business leaders must create an environment where priorities are agreed and conflict is resolved without escalating. They must communicate for buy-in to make sure the message about the change is understood. And, they must gain the support and commitment of line managers.

What’s more, performance management systems must align to organisational goals. Measures and rewards should set objectives for both matrix management and  line management.

If teams members with matrix management responsibilities are to be held accountable for their individual achievements they must be given the necessary authority to meet them.

Thus, responsibility and authority are held in balance at all levels across the project team.

We must recognise that change projects cannot be run successfully with vaguely defined roles. There should be a single point of responsibility for each aspect of work. Meaning responsibilities are commonly agreed and documented, and all team members made aware of their roles.

Summary

The potential difficulties of matrix management can be overcome if all levels of management recognise two simple rules:

  1. Matrix management responsibilities are to agree plans for the project or change — in light of any other existing demands from line management or other projects — and then to work to them.
  2. Line management responsibilities in this context are to honour such agreements.

Also, to avoid conflict of interest the role of the project manager and line manager are exclusive — the line manager works for the benefit of the employee and the business while the project manager works for the benefit of the customer and the business.

However, in the end it is people who decide the success or failure of any project or change initiative. An aim of every leader is to find and acquire competent people, motivate them, and gain their commitment.

Creative Commons image courtesy Mark Demers.

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