Matrix Organization Design – Don’t Go There

By Michelle Malay Carter on April 23, 2008 

matrixorganization.jpgManish Kaushik posted the following question on LinkedIn:
What are the best ways to maximise work efficiency and achieve perfect interpersonal harmony in a matrix “multiple bosses” org structure – A) If you are one of the bosses, B) If you are the subordinate.

Here’s my take:

Multiple bosses is anything but efficient, and they are blatantly unfair and stress inducing. The involved parties will spend more time managing the relationships than they will getting work done.

Manager Defined

A manager, by definition, is one who is accountable for the output of others (his direct reports). When more than one person is ultimately accountable for anything or anyone, the door is open to buck passing and conflict.

Working For Others Is Fine. Reporting to Them All is Not
It is reasonable for an employee to do work for more than one person, but the employee should always ultimately report to one person. That person, his manager, can authorize his employee to do specific tasks or project work for others, but at the end of the day the manager and only the single manager should be accountable for the employee.

Managers are accountable for assigning tasks, prioritizing, and monitoring the workload of their employees. If more than one person has the ability to assign tasks, conflict and confusion will reign.

What If?
One boss could have the employee working on a large project that takes nearly all his time (and interest), and the other boss, may become resentful and give the employee demerits for poor time management. What will that do for engagement?

The Dreaded Performance Appraisal – Twice the Misery
When it comes time for performance appraisals, whose opinion will count? What happens when one boss says, you spend too much time planning, and the other says, you need to do more planning?

Matrix organizations are a petri dish for dysfunction. My advice, stay away from them.

I had two bosses once; it was not fun for any of us. You?

I’m OK. You’re OK. Let’s fix the system.

Filed Under Requisite Organization


14 Responses to “Matrix Organization Design – Don’t Go There”

  1. Will Pearce on April 23rd, 2008 11:37 pm

    At the risk of sounding *fully* contrarian (I’m only about 5% contrarian), the problems that Michelle points out are due to faulty implementations of a matrix organizational structure. Why’s that statement not fully contrarian? Because she’s probably right about at least 95% of the implementations (and possibly more than that). In other words, the theory is probably good right up until it runs into the realities of pre-existing organizational cultures, expectations based on prior career experiences, etc.

    So why don’t I concede that last 5%? Because I can envision a start-up organization that could benefit from a matrix structure and that intentionally planned its culture, policies, processes, and management systems around a proper implementation could not only make it work, but be far better off for it. The biggest challenge would be growing the staff in such a way as to maintain the culture (i.e., assimilate new hires into the culture) as the organization grew. Given that almost everyone you hired would need to be trained and mentored in how the matrix structure worked, this might prove to be a brake on the rate of growth (though that’s an informed speculation on my part).

    For more on my thoughts about a “proper” implementation, see my answer to the LinkedIn Question that Michelle links at the top of her blog entry.

  2. Michelle Malay Carter on April 24th, 2008 6:18 am

    Hi Will,

    Yes,I suppose you never say never. But the title, “Don’t Go There 95% of the Time” is just not as catchy! Thanks for the comment.



  3. Chris Young on April 25th, 2008 9:36 am

    Michelle – Your post reminds me of scene from the movie Office Space where Peter is meeting with the consultants – the Bobs. Peter tells the Bobs that he has 8 bosses and that every time he messes up he gets told 8 different times. That Peter says is his only real motivation, not getting hassled.

    Not exactly the kind of motivation we hope to create in the workplace!

    The matrix organization seems to be one of those good in theory, but not so great in practice ideas that, like so many other flawed systems, fails to take into account the human factor.

    Chris Young

  4. Steve Roesler on April 25th, 2008 3:42 pm


    I have mixed feelings about matrix management, but here’s why:

    1. I was asked–for the first time– to help a company implement matrix management in 1981. It as clear to me that it would never work effectively and would cause all of the problems that we are aware of. And it did.

    2. If it weren’t for companies continually deciding to implement things that have been proven never to work, my progeny would not have received a college education and I would be drinking cheap wine from a brown paper bag while sitting on a curb.

    Twenty seven years later I still make an effort to stop clients from doing what I know won’t work. They still do it.

    It occurs to me that much of our profession could actually be defined in terms of “organizational pooper scooper.”

    So, I say: Buy a DVD of The Matrix and feed the Beagle regularly.

  5. Michelle Malay Carter on April 25th, 2008 4:10 pm

    Hi Chris and Steve,

    Thanks for the comments. I have a friend at church whose organization just implemented dual-leadership. He knew it wouldn’t work, and he shares the war stories with me because he knows I can appreciate them.

    As it turns out, dual-leadership didn’t work. So what did they do? The went to four-way leadership!! If two bosses don’t work, give someone four! I’ll keep you posted.

    Michelle Malay Carter

  6. Kevan Hall on April 28th, 2008 3:20 am

    Hi All

    Good posts, you may find the article below on multiple bosses and matrix working useful too

  7. Michelle Malay Carter on April 29th, 2008 6:35 am

    Hi Kevan,

    Thanks for the article. After you are in a matrix organization, there are certainly things you can do to make things more palatable as your article points out. I view them as coping mechanisms for poor design. I think we could be much more effective if we fixed the design.

    Thanks for the comment.



  8. dan mccarthy on May 2nd, 2008 5:31 am

    Michelle ?

    I just stumbled across your blog from the latest Hr carnival, read a few posts, and will be back for sure. (I subscribed).

    As for working in the dreaded ?matrix?:
    Every organizational structure has its inherent flaws. The key is to put systems, processes and capabilities in place to minimize the flaws the best you can. I?ve worked in large, global matrixed organizations. It requires a high degree of collaboration and agility, but it can work.

  9. Michelle Malay Carter on May 2nd, 2008 7:38 am

    Hi Dan,

    Welcome. Thanks for you comment and for joining MMM via subscription. I look forward to a continuing dialog with you.

    I’m all about paying attention to systems, processes and capabilities. As I say, I’m OK. You’re OK. Let’s fix the system.



  10. Gaynelle Holdip on May 22nd, 2008 11:58 pm

    Hi Michelle
    I am from Trinidad and Tobago, working with an Education Ministry that is going through a lot of reform measures at the same time. One of the measures is decentralization into Districts. My division is due to be decentralized in a way that I believe will cause problems and conflicts as the lowest level of responsibility will have at least 2 supervisors officially but the operating culture also means that there will be some unofficial calls from other superiors. I am leading my division’s transition team and I have been pointing out the potential for inefficiencies and ineffectiveness but … I am trying to recommend an appropriate org structure. Any help?

  11. Michelle Malay Carter on May 23rd, 2008 5:41 am


    Sounds like you are in a tough situation. In my humble opinion, the proper structure is for each person to have ONE, and only one, manager. Employees can certainly complete assignments for others, if it is approved by the manager. And, the assigner should go to the manager, not the employee to get clearance to assign the task. In the case of on-going or frequently recurring tasks, the manager can specify that the assigner need no longer come to the manager each time he needs the employee to do THIS PARTICULAR THING. The employee who is acting as a service provider to people other than his boss should take care of assignments on a first come, first served basis. Again, if the assigner want preferential treatment, it should be cleared by the employees manager. Hope this helps. You are right to be concerned.



  12. Gaynelle Holdip on May 25th, 2008 10:43 pm

    Thanks Michelle for your prompt response
    I will certainly bring your suggestion to the table. The major problem is of course having persons respect the policy and the rules of procedure, especially during the transition phase where persons will have to give up some power for the efficient working of the system

  13. Kevan Hall on June 11th, 2008 3:55 pm

    Power and career struggles are a major part of the problem and one people rarely talk about.

    Very senior managers often underestimate the impact of the change because, at the top, not much changes, everyone still works for you.

    It’s usually the next level down who feel the loss of power and often spend time trying to get back the level of control they used to have in the old structure

    Legacy behaviours like this are hard to deal with

  14. Michelle Malay Carter on June 11th, 2008 8:08 pm

    Hi Kevan,

    Thanks for stopping by. Interesting comment. I think you are on to something here. Thanks for the comment.