Does your company have a matrix organization, or just lazy leadership?

When it's done with care, a matrix can break down barriers and encourage communication. But it's not, it can put employees in an awkward position.

Image: iStock/Gruppo_Teatrale_Universitario

The Matrix is no longer just a popular sci-fi movie, but an organizational model that's being adopted by an increasing number of companies. Traditional organizational models usually modeled the military, with each member of the organization reporting to a single superior, and potentially having one or more "direct reports," providing a clear chain of command where the lowest individual on the org chart could ultimately map their way up to the CEO.

The traditional command and control model made lines of reporting obvious. Each member of the organization had a single boss who would set his or her priorities, and ultimately guide their career. Like all models, however, there were negatives. If you had a bad or ineffective boss, you had little recourse to change your destiny. Furthermore, you might be isolated from other elements of the organization, since all the communication and strategizing between groups and divisions had to filter through multiple organizational layers.

These challenges engendered the creation of matrix models, whereby a single individual might report to multiple bosses in some capacity. If you are a marketing business analyst, for example, you might report to someone in marketing as well as in IT, so you have a direct connection between the organizations that impact your job. Done well, a matrix can break down organizational barriers and encourage communication between organizational silos, a challenge particularly relevant for areas like IT that impact multiple parts of a business and are ultimately accountable to multiple functions.

SEE: How do you define great IT leadership? (ZDNet)

Who's the boss?

The problem with matrix organizational models is that they're an easy way to avoid the diligence and care required to build an effective organizational model that fosters the right amount of communication and collaboration without introducing unnecessary confusion. When you have a single boss it's easy to determine your objectives and know where to bring problems, but if you have five nominal bosses, to whom are you actually accountable? Who should be setting your objectives? Whose objective "wins" in the event of a conflict?

It's simple to take a manager or line employee, call them "matrixed," and make them accountable to a half dozen bosses, but it's also horribly lazy leadership. In effect, you're outsourcing your duty to the employee, and forcing them to make decisions about which nominal manager's priorities are the highest, and whose goals they should ultimately pursue. You're also putting the burden for failure on the employee, rather than the leader. If the employee makes the wrong call on pursuing an objective, how can any of his or her nominal managers be held to account when they each assigned what they saw as key priorities to the employee, and forced the employee to facilitate any mediation required to resolve conflicts?

Matrix with care

We are indeed in a collaborative business environment that requires interaction outside traditional business functions, but that doesn't necessarily mean the majority of your employees should be accountable to multiple managers. Before grabbing the mouse and drawing yet another line upward in your organizational chart, consider why an individual should be directly accountable to multiple parties. When there's a legitimate need, it's incumbent upon you as a leader to clearly articulate what functions each manager plays, and define boundaries for the employee so he or she is not left with the burden of resolving conflicts between his or her bosses. Seemingly administrative tasks like performing evaluations and setting performance objectives should clearly rest with a single individual, and ownership of the employee's career development and advancement should be unambiguous and communicated directly to that employee.

Even at the upper levels of the organization where you otherwise trust employees to do the right thing, it's imperative that you communicate what role each member of the employee's management "team" will play, and how that employee should resolve conflicts that might occur among powerful individuals in the organization.

SEE: 8 tips for building tech leadership skills

Command and collaborate

Before reflexively reaching for a matrix model, ask if formal collaborations around a set objective are a better route. A matrix might be tempting to provide oversight into a particular activity, or to ensure goals account for multiple organizational considerations, all noble objectives, but also ones that could be performed through working committees, project teams, or periodic reviews rather than assigning an employee a "management team." Like the movie, the matrix can be a comfortable place to be, but it's often far from optimal.

Also see:
Three reasons not to ignore one-on-one meetings in IT
New IT managers: learn these five people skills
How to use employee turnover as a health check for your company

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...