Challenges and Benefits of Matrix Management in the Workplace

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Matrix management is commonly used in organizations to share resources across functions. In a matrix management system an individual has a primary report-to boss and also works for one or more managers, typically on projects.

Why and Where Matrix Management Makes Sense:

Matrix management is ideal for sharing talents and skills across departmental boundaries. One of the most common scenarios for matrix management is when a group of individuals from all different functions organizes under a project manager to create something new and unique.

The ability to draw upon diverse skill sets from multiple disciplines strengthens the overall project team. 

Matrix approaches to projects and other initiatives are typically less expensive than establishing dedicated project teams, and the diversity of the team members makes them superior to many purely functional teams. 

Where Matrix Management Is Not Ideal:

While there are many potential benefits to this flexible style of team structure, there are some circumstances where it is not ideal. These include:

  • Where the initiative demands autonomy and long-term focus and commitment. In this situation, a dedicated team structure with a permanent assignment may be optimal. 
  • Where an individual's skills are mission-critical to a particular function and sharing this individual would materially or dangerously reduce the effectiveness of the function.

Varieties of Matrix Management Styles:

Depending upon the power of the manager leading the cross functional initiative there are three types: soft matrix, moderate matrix and hard matrix styles of teams.

The hard matrix format is similar to a dedicated team, where the manager and team members have near autonomy over their initiative. A soft form of matrix typically means that the initiative manager is dependent upon the various functional managers of the team participants for decision-making authority.

A moderate form straddles these two.

Challenges with Matrix Management:

While there are many benefits from a matrix management approach, there are challenges as well. A number of these include: 

  • The potential for participants to be conflicted between various managers and priorities. 
  • Communication confusion between and across initiatives and functions. 
  • Loss of clarity on who is responsible for performance evaluation
  • Loss of clarity on who is responsible for coaching and professional development.
  • Stress as participants are stretched across too many initiatives.  
  • Reduced effectiveness versus teams that have been in place for a period. 
  • Loss of organizational or team learning and team memory because individuals are involved for just a short duration. 
  • The potential for individuals to be over-assigned to too many initiatives. It is sometimes difficult to gauge the capacity or workload of individuals in a matrix situation. 

Succeeding as an Employee in a Matrix Management Situation: 

Working in a matrix environment can be both rewarding and frustrating. Your exposure to different initiatives and colleagues supports learning and relationship development. However, it is important as an employee, working in a matrix, to understand your firm's approach to your evaluation and development.

  • Clarify who has the primary responsibility to evaluate you. 
  • Clarify how the input of your various matrix managers (often project managers) will be captured and reflected in your performance evaluation. 
  • Maintain a regular dialog with your report-to manager to keep him/her apprised of your progress and priorities. 
  • Identify conflicting priorities and broker discussions between the various managers to clarify any confusion.
  • Take the initiative to propose or encourage your report-to manager to invest in your professional development through training, education, and coaching. Gain the support of your matrix managers for these efforts.  

Matrix Management Bottom line: 

There are pros and cons to every management structure and approach, and this holds true for matrix management. It is not ideal in every circumstance, and it can create stress for participants where the demands exceed the time, resources or the ability to juggle priorities.

It can also offer access to specialized knowledge on a temporary basis. Finally, it can be more cost effective than relying on dedicated teams. Succeeding with matrix management requires the active involvement of all parties. 

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Updated by Art Petty