Matrix Organization: At Best, a One-Off
Whenever volatility occurs in the market, companies start thinking about how to reorganize themselves so that they can cope with those changes effectively.
But since they’re trapped by traditional thinking, they tend to recycle old models rather than to create new ones.
One such model is matrix; and like so many that have gone before it, it looks great on paper.
The name for this model comes from the appearance of its organizational chart which, true to form, can only be appreciated by writing it down.
It combines the typical vertical chain of authority with one that is drawn horizontally – a short structure superimposed onto a tall one.
The design was attractive because it ostensibly included the best of both worlds: greater flexibility while retaining high levels of control.
In very large companies, work is normally organized in one of two ways: either by product or by function.
Matrix was intended to do both, and that’s because of the scale of the managerial problems that came from a challenge given to one organization in particular: NASA.
On May 25th, 1961, John F Kennedy, before a joint session of Congress, challenged the United States to put a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade.
At the time, the technology to do that didn’t exist.
And so in order to develop it, a wide range of organizations – universities, private companies and government agencies, each with their own mandates, expertise, and cultures – would have to work together in order to make it happen.
To mix our metaphors, this nightmare was the tip of the iceberg.
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about human beings is their propensity to solve complicated problems by making them even more convoluted.
Just think about the two organizational charts, for example.
Each had its own chain of command.
For any given decision, which chain was to be honored?
Were those who had come from a tall organization to follow theirs, while those who came from a short one to follow theirs instead?
If so, who may the final decision in the event of a conflict?
One of the criticisms levied by those who worked on this project was that no one was in charge.
By its very design, the two managers – one from each chain – were supposed to reach a joint decision so that such conflicts could be resolved.
They seldom were.
Each chain of command also had its own supervisors.
Who worked for whom?
This, too, was unclear.
And that left employees wondering not only what to do, but what would happen if they chose one way over another.
No wonder they were confused.
This created a third problem: divided loyalties.
Given the ongoing and unresolved conflicts between the chains of command, permanent employees, who were tasked for temporary duties, risked isolating themselves from both, not only during the project, but more especially afterwards, when they would return to their previous jobs.
Two of everything
In every other merger including marriage, a primary goal is to eliminate duplication.
But in matrix, there was a dogged determination to keep it.
It’s nothing less than amazing that NASA was able to make this work. But you can’t help wondering if the Apollo project couldn’t have been accomplished in less time and at a much lower cost.
If leaders took the time to consider what they were about to inflict on their organizations by implementing this model, then a lot of unnecessary expense, not to mention the heartache it would wreak on the people involved, could be avoided.
And when you think about it, it’s astounding that anyone would imagine that greater flexibility could be achieved by having two of everything.
But then, bureaucracy seldom makes sense.