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Dealing with the Disadvantages of a Matrix Organization

Kevan Hall, CEO of Global Integration will be part of the international faculty on the upcoming Senior Executive Programme, IMI’s flagship development programme for senior business leaders which begins on May 26th. Kevan will be providing insights into how individuals can navigate the potential complexities of new reporting structures. Below he gives us a preview of some of these challenges and how we can look to overcome them.


The vast majority of large complex organizations today operate some form of matrix organization. This might be through formal dual reporting, or it might be through operating horizontal business processes and more integrated central functions.  Whatever we call this more globally integrated and horizontal way of working – when run properly it delivers enormous business benefits in operating supply chains, serving global customers and generating synergies internally.

However, there are some predictable and preventable disadvantages in this more integrated way of working.  Part of our job as leaders in a matrix organization is to deliver the benefits and prevent the problems.

Three of the major disadvantages are:

  • an increase in the number of meetings
  • delays to decision-making
  • a lack of accountability

Let’s start with meetings. When companies introduce a more integrated organization, it is often an explicit objective to break the silos and increase the amount of communication and collaboration across the business. But be careful what you wish for!  When we take the traditional vertical structures of function and geography and we add new horizontal processes and reporting lines, people and business issues become more connected. There are just more people involved in cooperation and decision making. It is not surprising, therefore, that a matrix usually results initially in a higher number of meetings and delays in making decisions.  Matrix success lies in being both connected, and effective, not in having everybody involved in everything.

The third factor, a lack of accountability, usually masks a deeper challenge, that leaders are not confident in their ability to get things done when they don’t directly control the resources needed.

The key to addressing the first two challenges, an increase in the number of meetings and delays to decision-making is being much more selective and mindful about both who we involve in business issues and decisions and the processes we use.

In a simple face-to-face organization, the cost of involvement is relatively low. People tend to be invited to meetings to make them feel involved and to facilitate communication and buy-in rather than because they are essential to the business of the meeting. In a complex, global matrix, the synchronous (that is, same time, if not same place) style of working that requires meetings becomes relatively difficult and expensive to arrange. Asynchronous working or the use of small sub-teams is much more effective.

Delays to decisions can slow down product launches, delay our response to competitive pressures and frustrate our people. In the area of accountability, we see a similar effect. Accountabilities overlap or are shared. If this is interpreted or implemented as a lack of accountability, then something is wrong. In fact in a matrix there should be more accountability as accountabilities overlap.

Senior leaders in particular often struggle with having accountability when they don’t have control over the resources they need to deliver those accountabilities. In a matrix they need to engage others and mobilize resources that they don’t own to get important things done.

Whilst initially this sounds difficult, it is in fact the whole point of the matrix! In order to be comfortable with accountability without control, leaders need the skills to build alliances, influence without authority and get things done through others. The trick here is to develop suitable overlapping accountabilities so that people feel accountable for the end to end delivery of the product or service, not just for hitting their own narrow local numbers.

In both of these cases there are two steps to a solution.

The first is to build new skills in matrix management – such as being selective in who to involve and how to engage them virtually, and how to get things done through influence without formal authority.

However, developing skills is usually an individual thing. So we also need to work directly on our collective ways of working – the habits, practices and routines that we use to get things done. Changing the way we run meetings, the way we structure goals and the way we use technology are all necessary for the implementation of these new ways of working.

It’s useful to see this as a change or transformation project rather than just a skill building exercise. It’s a worthwhile investment as developing the skills and ways of working are critical to success in a more integrated organization.


To register an interest in the SEP or talk to the programme director to discuss your needs further, please click here.

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