Managing in a Matrix

How to Make a Success of it

“Matrix Management: not a structure, a frame of mind.”  SUMANTRA GHOSHAL
Windows onto many departments

In a Matrix Structure people have two, or more, upward reporting lines i.e. they’ve two bosses, who each represent a different business dimension; such as product, region, customer, capability, or function.

For example, a Marketing Manager might have a boss for their geographical region (e.g. the UK) and a second boss who is responsible for the product they are promoting. An HR Manager might report to the Global Head of HR and the CEO of the business unit they are supporting. An Engineer might be assigned to work full time on a specific project, reporting to the Project Manager and also simultaneously reporting to the VP of Engineering.

Why have a matrix?

The matrix structure is usually a response to corporate silos and the communication problems they can create; the goal is to make the organisation more responsive to customers, and to use resources more efficiently.

As such, they have been used for some time. E.g. Phillips, the Dutch multinational electronics company set up a matrix structure in the 1950’s. It had national organisations (NOs) and product divisions (PDs). The network was held together by a number of coordinating committees, which resolved any conflict between the two.

The matrix system continues to be a popular organisational model. For example, in Revisiting the Matrix Organisation, by McKinsey (2016) the authors state that, in a survey of 4,000 US companies, 84% of respondents reported having matrix structures as part of their organisational design, with 17% of those organisations being classified as very highly matrixed (multiple teams and multiple managers).

What could possibly go wrong?

As noted above, matrix structures initially came about in response to an increasingly changeable, dynamic business environment, where information needed to be shared more widely and corporations needed to be closer to the customer. So, what ‘difficulties’ should senior executives be aware of if they are considering adopting this model?

It turns out that there are three big problems that need to be overcome:

  1. Performing in the face of competing goals or role ambiguity
    Dual reporting lines can lead to conflict and confusion – with at least two bosses to please the question arises regarding whose priorities should take precedence? And, with two or more ‘masters’ giving instructions, how is the risk of an employee being assigned too many tasks handled? And what stops people being given contradictory tasks? Also, who specifically is responsible for managing performance and for making sure that the employee gets an appropriate level of training and development?
  2. Dealing with diversity
    In a multinational organisation there is also the challenge of building relationships with bosses and peers from different cultural backgrounds who are oftentimes also in different time zones. It may well be the case that many of these relationships are ‘virtual’; taking place via email, phone calls and Skype with the bare minimum of face to face interaction.
  3. Influencing without authority
    In a matrix it is common to be made accountable for goals but to not have control over the resources needed to achieve them, e.g. key staff may well report to someone else. Also, decision making can be confused and it can be hard to get approval to spend money as there are ‘turf wars’ about things like which P&L should be charged etc.

When matrix’s work

Another question Senior Executives might want to ask themselves is, “How do I get a matrix system working effectively?” Well, all the way back in 1990, Bertlett and Ghosal were arguing that an effective matrix organisation needs to be driven by (i) a clear and consistent corporate vision (ii) hiring, and/or developing people, who can cope with complexity, cultural diversity and can build strong relationships (iii) having processes to help people to develop a collaborative, global mindset – one that helps them to contribute to the corporate vision in practical ways.

Galbraith, J. R. (1939-2014), in Designing Matrix Organizations That Actually Work (2008), suggested that the key to making matrix structures effective is to create a culture that encourages collaboration, co-operation, and team working.

He argued that for a matrix to work the Leadership Team need to prioritise implementing processes for managing conflict and dealing with the ambiguity that having two bosses can so easily create. He advocated doing this using the STAR model…which identified five ‘levers’ for shaping desired behaviour – (i) Strategy (ii) Structure (iii) Process (iv) People and (v) Rewards.

While Vatrappen and Wirtz in their March 2016 HBR article, Making Matrix Organisations Actually Work,
have five guidelines for success:

  1. Adopt when purposeful
    The matrix structure should only be used when (i) there is a major need for middle managers of different teams to coordinate on important business matters on a daily basis and, (ii) the required coordination cannot be achieved adequately through ‘soft-wiring’ e.g. things like advisory committees and task forces.
  2. Keep intrinsic conflict out
    Make sure there are intrinsic reasons for the two dimensions in the matrix (e.g. region and function) to collaborate rather than to compete e.g. don’t let them fight over control of the P&L account.
  3. Limit breadth and depth
    Keep things simple – stick to two organising principles (e.g. product + region or region + function).
  4. Don’t pretend it is not a matrix
    Don’t make a distinction between a dotted and full reporting line, implying that the ‘dotted line’ relationship is of secondary importance. Position the two reporting lines of a matrixed manager as fully balanced (i.e. 50-50).
  5. Escalate by exception only
    A common complaint about a matrix structure is that it increases upward reporting and slows decision making. It is up to the higher levels to refuse unwarranted upward escalation of trade-offs and conflicts.

Weak vs. strong matrix structures

In the context of managing projects companies often either adopt a Project Structure or a Matrix Structure. In a Project Structure, the Project Manager has a team that work full time for them and when the project is completed the team disband. In matrix structures people typically work on projects part time. Matrix Project structures are often described as weak, or strong.

In a ‘weak’ matrix structure a Project Manager acts as an administrator or co-ordinator. The role is essentially to do with the communication and reporting of results (rather than decision making). This structure is also often called a Functional Matrix, because most of the power stays with the supporting functions (e.g. engineering, IT, finance etc.)

In a ‘strong’ matrix structure the Project Manager is directly responsible for the delivery of the project and has decision making authority, including control of the budget. They will liaise with Functional Managers to get the resources they need allocated to the task they need done. Typically, the Project Manager will be allocated full time for the duration of the project.

There is (of course) a hybrid version, where the Project Manager has joint responsibility for the project outcome with the Functional Managers and that’s known as a ‘balanced’ matrix structure.

Which system is ‘best’ is a function of the type of project being undertaken. What is undeniable however, is that to make any of these matrix systems work the Project Manager has to rely not only on their technical expertise but also the ability to influence without authority. So, the political savvy associated with skills like stakeholder analysis, coalition building and negotiation techniques is a key success factor in making these structures work well.

Four key competencies for managing in a matrix

The busy manager struggling to thrive in a matrix system might like to reflect on Sumantra Ghoshal’s comment that “Matrix management is not a structure but a state of mind”, highlights the fact that the ‘soft skills’ of influencing, persuasion, negotiation, diplomacy and (most especially) networking, are at the heart of being effective in this milieu.

Ruth Malloy of Hay Group (HBR August 2012) identifies four key competencies of people who are successful at managing in a matrix…

  1. Empathy: Understanding other people’s perspectives and responding accordingly e.g. what is the customers mindset?
  2. Conflict Management: Resolving disputes calmly
  3. Influencing Skills: Building consensus around a common purpose
  4. Self-awareness: Learning to be patient in the face of complexit

They also point out that their research suggests that these qualities (though eminently trainable) are relatively rare, e.g. they find that only 9% of employees consistently demonstrate self-awareness and just 22% are strong in empathy.

Three things to avoid

In addition, Malloy offers the following ‘three tips’ for people who want to make a success of managing in a matrix…

First, don’t try and solve problems by ‘pulling rank’ – it irritates people and you may well find that given the lack of formal authority in the system it doesn’t work anyway! Opt instead for a collaborative problem-solving approach to resolving issues.

Second, don’t escalate problems to senior management. As with pulling rank it tends to cause irritation and distrust, which makes future collaborations more difficult.

Third, don’t handle sensitive issues by email. Text messages or emails are open to misinterpretation and can easily cause (unintended) offence. Better to make a phone call, Skype call, or – if possible – have a face-to-face meeting.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how you conduct yourself in your matrixed relationships. Are you demonstrating enough empathy? Do you make enough effort to build consensus? What improvements could you make?


Revisiting the matrix organization by Bazigos and Hater of Mckinsey.


Watch… this six-minute clip covering the competencies that people need to be effective in a matrix.
See video clip:


Consider sending your managers on two-day Advanced Influencing Skills course (which looks in detail at a wide range of persuasion strategies that are idea for use in the context of a matrix structure)…

We also have a half-day workshop on Managing in a Matrix that is a great way of ensuring consistency in dealing with the inevitable disagreements that arise within a Matrix Structure.

If you’re a senior executive maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session would be a useful option for helping you improve your ability to lead in a Matrixed Organisation

Or gives us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or +44 844 394 8877 (International) or email us at and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And remember… in the end successful matrix management is as much about developing good relationships as devising good structures…

“If we are going to live with our deepest differences then we must learn about one another.”