Matrix organizations are sometimes described in terms of solid line and dotted line relationships. The solid line/dotted line terminology can be useful shorthand, but only after the more tedious work of clarifying the structure in more precise detail has been done. Glib and lofty descriptions of matrix management as arrangements of “sharing staff” or “dotted-line” relationships are elegant at the intellectual level. Descriptions that are more gritty and granular are needed for folks who work in the matrix structure everyday and use it to get decisions made and work done.
One useful question for clarifying structure is to ask whether an issue to be decided relates to “doing the right thing” or to “doing things right.” Some issues associated with “doing the right thing” relate to defining what is to be done, by when something must be done, and why it must be done, to name a few. Issues associated with “doing things right” include, among others, defining how something is to be done and by whom.
When employees are confused as to whom they should turn about what issue, we have a structure that needs clarification. Failure to clarify these relationships adequately results in frustration and lost productivity—schoolyard-style shoving matches, people making up their own rules, and expanding or contracting their own roles on a freelance basis. Once key issues of doing things right and doing the right things have been explicated fully, we can, if we wish, then attach a shorthand description. Call it solid line or dotted line, call it vertical or horizontal, but make sure that whatever you call it has real clarity of meaning behind it—news that the employees can use.
In the matrix organization, personality issues hemorrhage in to fill gaps created by structural ambiguities. This also happens in traditional hierarchical structures, but that is not our focus here. One of Strategic Futures matrix management success factors is role clarity. To the extent that defined roles in your matrix organization are unclear, you will create a fertile breeding ground for personality-based clashes. These rifts can do lasting damage to relationships that are needed for a shared-fate culture where shared objectives are pursued using shared resources. Personality clashes that would have rarely if ever been ignited become needlessly incendiary because of role ambiguity.
In the past quarter, I have worked with two clients in the same sophisticated industry – an industry which will remain unnamed. Both of these organizations have suffered intensifying personality clashes among senior leaders. In one instance, the roles were well-defined at the time of matrix management implementation, but have been allowed to drift. In the other instance, the roles were not clearly defined at the outset and ensuing disagreements with accompanying personality flare-ups have occurred.
While it is true that personality clashes can and will occur among strong executives even when structure has been well-defined with accompanying role clarity, matters are exacerbated when the strict lines dividing horizontal and vertical authority and responsibilities have been allowed to blur or otherwise to become intertwined.
To avoid reaching the “point of no return” on personality clashes within the organization, it is best to ensure that roles and prerogatives are defined clearly and then enforced strictly by top leadership. The absence of fundamental clarity creates a dysfunctional breeding ground for such conflict. The dynamic that gets unleashed by role ambiguity is straightforward: When there is doubt about who has the authority to do what, ego enters the fray and personality variables that would otherwise be suppressed or otherwise unexpressed are unleashed. The result is destructive tension rather than the constructive tension that we seek through the matrix structure.
With this said, the existence of such conflicts should not be cause for utter despair. One of my earliest matrix management consulting assignments involved such a conflict. The Chief Scientific Officer here in the US was sending “ricochet shots” intended to deprecate his US Chief Operating Officer via company headquarters personnel located in Europe. Understandably, there were hard feelings between the CSO and the COO. The differences between the “business” personality and the “science” personality were inflamed. Each held a hard-bitten, passionate viewpoint that was in conflict with the other. The two were on the brink of being unable to work together on anything — for any purpose. However, with a new agreement that clarified the roles of each and the protocol for consultation with others here in the US and abroad, they were able to work it out for the good of the company and for their own respective careers and comfort levels. Role clarity made for a happy ending to a story that could have ended disastrously for the parties and for the company.
Bottom line? There is plenty of good that can be done by human relations consultants who are focused on improving and repairing damaged interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Ensure role clarity at the outset and maintain it throughout and you will avoid the exacerbation of mis-fitting personalities. There are times when a Chief Executive needs to resort eclectically to Darwinian Management whereby the “survival of the fittest” is an appropriate contest. However, Darwinian “survival of the fittest” scenarios are best reserved for extraordinary use: Role clarity is the best antidote for abating conflicts that never needed to happen in the first place and, in the end, added absolutely no value or special insights, only distress and lost productivity.
If you need help with role clarity or standing up your matrix management organization, please call us, 703/836-8383 or email us at email@example.com.
Does your matrix structure need a “Matrix Guardian?” A “Matrix Guardian,” also known as a “Matrix Manager,” is an individual whose job it is to see to it that the matrix structure is functioning effectively and efficiently, and that the principles of matrix management are being applied correctly and fairly. The Matrix Guardian ensures that “good hygiene” is being practiced throughout the matrix structure.
Some of the key functions of the Matrix Guardian are to:
- Serve as a technical resource to staff, managers, and executives on matrix management practices and issues
- Conduct periodic inspections to ensure that key matrix success factors such as role clarity, process clarity, are in a state of continuous improvement
- Function as an ombudsman or arbiter in working through a variety of emerging issues such as chronic staff overwork/underwork or boundary disputes, for example
- Provide a long-range strategic perspective on the structure and assist in its evolution over time
Consider designating a Matrix Guardian under these circumstances:
- During matrix management’s early implementation or revitalization
- When there are challenges of intense internal politics or significant resource skirmishes
- When there are persistent concerns related to trust and fairness
- When you want to accelerate and fortify institutionalization of matrix management in a larger organization
How do you staff the Matrix Guardian position successfully? Ideally, the position should be staffed by someone who is thoroughly trained and experienced in matrix management and who is regarded as fair and approachable. The Matrix Guardian should be both mature and discreet—a person with whom people at all levels can converse candidly without fear of hearing their words echoing in the hallway or being communicated to “the boss” when confidential or low-profile problem-solving was the primary objective of the conversation.
One of my first matrix management consulting assignments was that of rehabilitating and re-strengthening a matrix manager in whom R&D personnel had lost trust. Up until the turning point when trust soured, the individual had been very effective in playing the role of Matrix Guardian. The rehabilitation project was a success. This assignment reinforced in my mind the valuable role that a Matrix Guardian can play—when the role is played effectively and when trust is building rather than eroding.
For help with your matrix, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 703/836-8383.