b-school, Business, Henley, Management, MBA, Thoughts

The matrix in our heads

Lately I’ve been too busy. Let me tell you why. I’ve had a peak of work, one of those moments that my organisation needs me more than usual (or so I think) and I’m busier than usual. If you add the time for studying and having a life, the equation requires suppressing other things, such as sleeping or free time. My own time economy requires an equilibrium.

As any project goes towards completion, people start getting nervous. Contractors see their deadlines come closer. And, as coordination gets tougher, many of them seek the chance to justify their delays on other contractors (sometimes they are even right), chances to renegotiate contracts and get additional money. It’s business after all.

These days we have received reinforcements. Twenty five more people to add to our hordes of engineers to keep contractors tight. But they are a contractor themselves, as this technical assistance has been awarded through a tendering process too. How do you streamline that? How can you digest another contractor and make it become an extension of you so that they can keep the others in line?

Being a matter of strategy too, it has been a good chance to use the matrix structure, one of the most famous. Many times praised and many times blamed, the matrix structure breaks vertical hierarchy adding another horizontal dimension.


The figure shows an example from a project management perspective. In our case it’s a bit more complicated because we are not managing projects, but contractors, resources and people. But the structure still stands. At the same time our contractor must respond to the organisation about the global use of their resources and needs to be able to serve all the resources, skills and ability that have been contracted.

You know, it’s not simple to work this way, but the other options are simply worse. Authority works to a certain extent, but our work is different every day, project-based, dealing with uncertainty, with incomplete and asymmetric information and in a complex organisational background.

Sometimes my role resembles a stakeholder manager, simply trying to seek equilibriums between all parts to take the project forward.

But let’s go back to practice. Sometimes the main problem for implementing a matrix structure, and that is my direct experience these days, is that a structure is only that, a structure. Something theoretical, written in a paper or imprinted on an excel spreadsheet, but names are not enough, roles are not enough, organisational charts are not enough.

And I guess that’s what many companies encountered when they tried to implement matrix structures.

What is missing? I have a possible answer: culture. How do you implement matrix structures in hierarchical organisations? How do you share responsibilities when you are not used to? when you have never done so? when you are used to giving orders?

In a project-focused organisation people must be empowered and initiative fostered. There’s no other way. Power must be distributed, principles established, assumptions shared. If you are used to give orders, don’t expect your people to do other things than following them. If you don’t nurture their ability to decide, it’s no wonder they won’t decide anything.

I won’t hide I’ve been having discussions about this, specially with someone that doesn’t want to let go. But he needs to. He tries to resist, but reality is stubborn, too stubborn. And I am too. In fact I’m a little sorry for him. Maybe I’ve even been too harsh with him, but then I tell to myself there’s no good in hiding reality, there’s no gain with no pain… although I can’t help seeing his inability to adapt to the situation and his suffering disguised behind an iron mask. And I feel a bit guilty to be breaking his iron mask.

But the traditional hierarchical way of being a manager is not valid here, not anymore. People have to change. People have to adapt. People should be selected, not only because their technical abilities but by their ability to adapt, to learn, to embrace change.

Fortunately some people understand, and I have my allies into this new adventure. I’ve already established my links with many of the new people, shared my vision. And they understand. Adaptation is in the way.


Organisations are nothing without people. And matrix organisations require people to understand the matrix in their heads, not to try to hold it to their ground. This is a shared ground, there is only one master: a successful completion of the project.


One thought on “The matrix in our heads

  1. Pingback: Roles of product/project managers in organisations (a matter of power) « Gabriel’s scarcity rent - it’s management stupid!

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