Challenges and Benefits of Matrix Management in the Workplace

A manager speaks with her employees
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Matrix management is commonly used in organizations to share employees and resources across functions. In a matrix management system, an individual has a primary report-to boss while also working for one or more managers, typically on projects.

There are different types of matrix management styles, and different methods to overcome the challenges that come with them. You should know whether is it appropriate to use matrix management and what style you should employ.

Where Matrix Management Makes Sense

Matrix management is ideal for sharing talent and skills across departments. It's an especially handy system when developing new products—it allows individuals from different functions within an organization to work under a project manager to create something new and unique. This gives the team the ability to draw upon diverse skill sets from multiple disciplines, strengthening the project team. 

It's a great way to cut costs as well—a matrix approach to projects is typically less expensive than establishing dedicated project teams. The diversity of the team members makes the team superior to many purely functional teams. 

Where Matrix Management Is Not Ideal

While there are many potential benefits to this flexible style of team structure, there are some circumstances where it is not ideal. These include:

  • A project predicted to be long term. A dedicated team with a permanent assignment may be optimal
  • Situations in which one employee's skills are mission-critical to a particular function. Sharing this individual may reduce the effectiveness of that function

Varieties of Matrix Management Styles

The types of matrix management styles depend on the power given to the project manager leading the cross-functional initiative. There are three types of project team styles: weak matrix, balanced matrix and strong matrix teams.

The hard matrix format is similar to a dedicated team, where the team members have a clear line of reporting to the project manager. The project manager is the functional manager until the project ends. Generally, the function the team member belongs to loses that person for the duration of the project.

In the balanced matrix form, team members report to both the project manager and functional manager. In this form, members are generally expected to be working on the project and in their function, keeping both managers informed.

The weak form of matrix typically means that the project manager has to communicate with the functional managers of each respective team member. Each member reports to their functional manager for tasks on both functions and the project they are assigned to.

Challenges with Matrix Management

While there are many benefits of a matrix management approach, there are challenges as well. A number of these include: 

  • The potential for participants to be conflicted between various managers and priorities
  • Communication confusion between and across projects and functions 
  • Loss of clarity on who is responsible for performance evaluation 
  • No determination on responsibility for coaching and professional development
  • Individual capability reduction as participants become stretched across too many initiatives 
  • Reduced effectiveness amongst functional teams that have been working together for some time
  • Loss of organizational learning and team learning because individuals are involved for only a short duration

To reduce the confusion, conflicts, and loss of clarity, responsibilities should be defined in the project charter or agreed upon by the managers involved.

Members assigned to a project should be thoroughly vetted to ensure they are capable of handling the increase in the volume of work. Different forms of matrix styles should be explored to ensure that the proper one is chosen for the capabilities of the team members and the firm.

Documentation should be thorough and throughout the project to protect the lessons that are learned and provide evaluation information for the team members.

Employee Keys to Success

Working in a matrix environment can be both rewarding and frustrating. Your exposure to different initiatives and colleagues will support learning and relationship development. However, it is important for an employee working in a matrix to understand your firm's approach to your evaluation and development. Some actions you can take as a matrix team member are:

  • Resolve the identity of your primary reporting manager
  • Clarify how the input of your various matrix managers will be captured and reflected in your performance evaluation 
  • Maintain a regular dialog with your report-to manager to keep them apprised of your progress and priorities 
  • Identify conflicting priorities and broker discussions between the various managers to clarify any confusion
  • Take the initiative to propose or encourage your report-to manager to invest in your professional development through training, education, and coaching
  • Gain the support of your matrix managers for these efforts
  • Document everything. Type a memo to yourself every day regarding complications and successes. This way, you have documentation of your performance and work throughout the project

There are pros and cons to every management structure and approach. Matrix management is not ideal in every circumstance, and it can create stress for participants where the demands exceed the time and available resources.

Matrix management can offer access to specialized knowledge on a temporary basis while being more cost-effective than relying on dedicated teams. Succeeding with matrix management requires the active involvement and communication of all parties.