Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Intentional management 3: the matrix management model and its variations

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on March 23, 2014

This is my third installment in a series in which I discuss how management activity and responsibilities can be parsed and distributed through a business organization, so as to better meet operational and strategic goals and as a planned intentional process (see Part 1: mapping management systems by default and through simple repetition of a basic oversight model and Part 2: a brief and selective discussion of Google as a case study .)

I focused in Part 2 on a first, business-specific example of how an organization can strategically move away from the standard, traditional management model that I outlined in Part 1 and at the end of Part 2 I noted that the approach that Google takes can be seen as an example of a generalized form of matrix management. So I begin this posting by explaining what I mean when I use the term general, or generalized matrix management.

If you look at the definition and description of matrix management that is offered in the Wikipedia entry on it, as cited above with my hyperlink on that term, you find the text:

• “Matrix management is the practice of managing individuals with more than one reporting line (in a matrix organization structure), but it is also commonly used to describe managing cross functional, cross business group and other forms of working that cross the traditional vertical business units – often silos – of function and geography.”

I use this term to designate organizational and management structures in which at least some group or category of employees, at whatever level on the table of organization are cross-managed by more than one type of manager, reporting in at least two directions, and as their standard supervisory and management context.

• This specifically leaves out ad hoc and occasional dual management and supervision pathways, requiring strategically defined and supportive consistency.
• And this leaves out contexts such as in-house consulting where an individual employee, and even all members of a set group of employees consistently report to a primary supervisor, but also and on a project by project basis report to the stakeholder owners of those projects as their project clients, that they happen to be working upon. If an employee reports to two (or more) managers simultaneously, under a matrix management approach all managers involved follow standard, consistent supervisory processes and procedures and use standardized performance evaluation and reporting processes too.

Consistency and uniformity are crucial here, that a business follow an established and understood management pattern and approach, according to a consistent strategic and operational plan and with consistent due diligence and risk management performance reviews to monitor ongoing effectiveness. And that, I add, strikes to the core of what I mean by intentional management too.

Ad hoc may be necessary at times, and certainly when testing and prototyping new approaches and ways – new options that if proven successful could be mainstreamed where found appropriate, and that could become part of the strategic and operational tool set. But ultimately, replicable and performance trackable and analyzable consistency are crucial. (See Management and Strategy by Prototype – 1 and its Part 2 continuation.)

I have written on occasion about the problems that can and do arise when taking a matrix management approach, where co-responsible managers can and too often do collide in their goals and priorities and with the people who report to both of them caught in the middle. This type of conflict and the problems it creates come directly from uncontrolled and generally unacknowledged ad hoc inconsistencies and from lack of overall communications and control oversight processes and their implementations.

So in contrast to my more negative writings on how matrix management is too often implemented, let me suggest a positive application of this approach here, as a synthesis drawn from real world examples that I have seen in operation. And I begin with an innovative business unit that has a pool of hands-on specialized technical experts, who would be deployed into a succession of projects, and at times into several at once where project schedules are coordinated to allow for shared resources. I am not writing about a small group of in-house consultants working within this business unit, but rather about the entire business unit as a whole, where individuals with skill set areas of expertise are all on the move, all the time.

Individual projects which may be short-term or long-term enterprises in their own right, have project owners and managers of record. Their hands-on employee team members report directly to them and even on an open-ended basis for long-term projects, and even for years on single specific projects. These employees also report to their skills area managers, who have responsibility for making sure that the project managers they work with, get the hands-on skills support that they need, in the levels of hands-on support that they need, when they need it – but that this help move on as soon as it is no longer needed there so other project managers’ needs can be supported too. Considered as a whole, this can be an approach for managing dynamically flexible teams to meet specific task and project requirements according to the timeframe requirements of those projects, and with senior management oversight of relative project priorities to help keep this system smoothly running.

And when problems in scheduling and availability do arise, the goal of more senior management in this should be to help resolve any conflicts that have arisen and to help identify and resolve any ad hoc disconnects that could have caused them. Effective matrix management, like any effective management system, is of necessity a balancing act and particularly as business needs and contexts and opportunities and challenges change and evolve and as management systems have to adjust to accommodate all of that.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will step back to more fully consider the intentional management approach and intentional management systems in general, and both as they meet current needs, and as they evolve. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory.

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