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Published: August 27, 2013
 / Autumn 2013 / Issue 72

 
 

Life in the Matrix

Optimism usually prevails until the organization encounters a problem. It could be a business problem, such as a new product failing to gain traction in the market; the R&D and product development teams then blame marketing and sales for insufficient effort. It could be an organizational problem: Two newly merged units continue to operate as if they were separate entities, their supposedly aligned leaders fiercely contending every inch of turf. It could be a process problem: Managers feel unsure whether they should even mention a new idea in a meeting in which another matrixed unit is not represented. It could also be a teaming problem: Designated work groups overlook the discipline required for seamless, genuine, “real team”–style collaboration. If these problems crop up repeatedly and require constant mediation, people become disappointed and exhausted. It isn’t long before they begin to blame the matrix structure.

We believe the problem in most instances is not the matrix but how the matrix is understood. All too often, a matrix is viewed as a structure, a formal mechanism for managing dispersed accountability. But a matrix also has an innate cultural dimension. It is a way of operating and interacting—a complex web of formal and informal relationships that reflects how things actually get done across the organization. Even when the matrix structure has been well defined, this existing web of relationships and concerns continues to be a far greater influence on behavior. And when the web of relationships is at variance with the alignment that the organization needs, people experience it as frustrating and inauthentic.

A matrix structure, for example, might show two co-workers, Nora and Charlie, being connected, in the sense that they share responsibilities for the same part of the supply chain, or the same product line. But if Nora and Charlie have no real relationship, no sense of common purpose, no habit of keeping in touch, no way to identify or express common values, they will struggle to collaborate. And they may end up concluding that their interests are opposed.

When matrixed organizations flounder, it’s usually because the company has taken on the formal elements of organizational redesign—reworking the org chart and reassigning decision rights—without making the corresponding cultural moves that are needed to support the new structure. It’s easy to understand why this happens. The concrete and rational aspects of the matrix can be clearly defined, drawn, and mapped, which makes them easier to deal with. By contrast, the web that connects people and influences how they go about their daily work seems intangible, difficult to define. It is at least as emotional and informal as it is rational. Certainly it remains resistant to mapping. Too many leaders naturally focus on the more tangible aspects of design—who reports to whom, where lines intersect—and then hope for the best when it comes to the functionality of relationships among people.

To set the matrix free, we must recognize its dual nature. A structure that demands collaboration across traditional silos and boundaries requires a culture that fosters and energizes correspondingly collaborative behaviors: openness, a willingness to try new things, acceptance of small missteps, and so on. In short, the matrix should be designed as a web of alignment. What people bring to the table and how closely their attitudes and behaviors are aligned should affect the flow of information and activity as much as where people sit on the formal organization chart.

Cultural Alignment in Mexico

One of the more compelling examples of cultural alignment across a matrix took place starting in 2009 within PepsiCo’s subsidiary PepsiCo Mexico Foods (PMF). All through this episode, PMF was a crown jewel of performance within the overall global PepsiCo organization (it is also one of the biggest food companies in Mexico, with 55,000 employees and more than US$4 billion in annual revenues), but that didn’t make it any less challenging.

 
 
 
 
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