Matrix mismanagement

There are many atrociously stupid ideas floating around in the nebulous, often schizophrenic world of the "management industry". Apparently, people are willing to pay not exactly small sums of money to be told, by overly smug people with fancy and very expensive suits, and even more fancy and expensive MBAs, how to run their companies straight into the ground. And then start digging.

One of the most idiotic fads that has ever been inflicted upon us by the shysters in fancy suits has got to be this notion of "matrix management".

The concept is pretty simple, and sounds terrific on paper. Essentially, if you have a pool of people with similar skills all working on a multi-faceted project with many different problems to solve within it, you can be very flexible by taking the individual best suited to solving that particular problem from the pool and slotting him in to the role that you need him to fill. He might report to A most of the time, but when he's spending time solving problem X, he will also report to B.

By shifting resources around like this, and by ensuring that everyone's skills are fully utilised, a matrix structure works more efficiently than traditional "hard report" structures where everything gets stuck in a particular "corporate silo".

In theory, it sounds great. In practice, it's a goddamned disaster.

Take a look at this diagram. Go ahead, take all the time you need. I'll still be waiting right here.

How matrix management is supposed to work
Did you understand what it says? No? Don't feel bad. I didn't either. And I've worked in matrix organisations, or workplaces that try very hard to resemble matrix organisations, for most of my career.

The reality of matrix management is that you have no idea what you're really supposed to be doing.

Your boss, who determines your pay cheque and your bonus, will tell you what he wants you to do. So naturally, you potter around doing what he tells you. But you also happen to report to another bloke, who has his own agenda that he needs to complete, and wants you to work on. So you also have to do what he wants.

And if your direct reporting manager and your "dotted-line" manager happen to have conflicting ideas about how to run things... Well, I'm sorry to say that you're f***ed.

The end result is that no one in your team, organisation, or company will have the slightest idea what it is you do for a living.
How matrix management actually works
The only way to resolve this contradictory state of affairs is to get both of your bosses into a room to sort out exactly what you are supposed to be working on at any given point in time.

Of course, this means that you will have to engage in the single biggest killer of productivity and actual results known to human intelligence: the MEETING.

None of us is as dumb as all of us.
Meetings, in case you didn't already know, exist for exactly one purpose: to give everyone the illusion that actual work is being done. They are a colossal waste of time and energy.

And if you happen to be highly introverted, there is no faster and more thoroughly guaranteed way to destroy your reserves of energy and patience than an endless meeting involving maximal dick-beating and minimal information dissemination.

Of course, if you happen to work for any modern moderately large corporation, you will have noticed that most meetings are opportunities for the people who called the meetings to listen to themselves speak. Which is all well and good, if you happen to be into that sort of thing.

For those of us who actually like to get things done, though, this is pure torture. You might as well flay us alive and wear our skins as a shawl. This would almost surely be more productive than the original meeting that you had planned.

Even those who like matrix management- for some inexplicable reason, which I can only surmise has something to do with either a massive hole in the head or severe dementia expressed through extreme masochistic tendencies- are forced to admit that they spend quite a lot of their time in meetings, trying to figure out what they're really supposed to be doing, rather than actually, y'know, doing s**t:
In the manned space flight business and nearly every other DoD, NASA, and DOE domain matrix management is the basis of Integrated Product (Project) Teams (IPTs). See O 413.3-18 as an example for the DOE context. NAVAIR and NASA have similar practice guidance.

So here's how it works. Let's pretend I'm the Propulsion Engineering Lead (yes it is rocket science). 
I'm accountable for the design and development of the propulsion systems for our flying machine. This is critical concept - accountability - that is missed in most programs that go into the ditch. First Accountable, then Responsible. See for discussion on the RAM. 
I report to the Program Manager - single line of responsibility flows down. But it flows down through the Systems Engineering Lead. I take direction from two people. The PM and the SE. They work with me in a matrixed manner since we're on an IPT organization. Now if they tell me conflicting things - say how much thrust is needed to hold orbit at Mars, then I need to convene a meeting to get this sorted out.
Mr. I'mARocketScientistWhoDoesn'tKnowBasicHTML McBeardy there openly admits that whenever a disagreement comes up between his two "managers", HE has to convene a "meeting" to get the issue sorted out.

Why doesn't he just admit that he hates himself, his wife, and humanity in general?!?

And now we see the final, terminal problem with matrix management: the need for consensus between individuals whose interests are often diametrically opposed to each other.

This is also known as "management by consensus", and next to matrix management, that is the second most idiotic idea in the history of management theory.

This concept basically says that the only way an organisation will ever get anything done is if everyone discusses an issue- usually ad endless nauseam- and then agrees on a course of action that everyone supports.

In theory, this means that everyone will get warm fuzzies because all participants are "stakeholders" and have a "vested interest" in the "deliverables" arising from a given decision.

(Hey, I don't like bizblab, but that doesn't mean I'm not good at it.)

In practice, it just means that no one ever wants to confront a tough decision. Can you imagine what would happen if we had to decide whether to go to war this way?
"Hey guys, we just got the ever-lovin' bejeezus bombed out of us by those bastards from across the border, but we can only go to war if ALL of us agree to do so. So, that's all wrapped up, then?" 
"Joe, it's Fred. I disagree because I'm a pacifist and therefore refuse to support any course of action that leads to open war." 
"... F**k."
In the end, matrix management is about as useful in the real world as a really bad acid trip done while listening to PINK FLOYD's "Dark Side of the Moon".

(Since I have never taken any illicit drugs, I have no idea what this is like. This may also explain why I could never understand what is is that Baby Boomers see in PINK FLOYD. With exactly one exception.)

And of course, because it's as realistic as an acid trip, and because it makes as much sense as swan-diving into a drained pool, and because you can make lots of otherwise pointless PowerPoint slides about matrix management, it was at one time taught as The Next Big Thing in business school management theory classes. As if you needed yet another reason to hate business school...

Long story short: if someone comes to you trying to peddle matrix management as a "good idea"... just shoot the bastard. Save yourself a lot of time and trouble, and save your business a ton of money. And then buy me a beer with a little bit of that saved money. You're welcome.


  1. Matrix management was invented by the MIC (military-industrial complex) in the late 1960's so that everyone could be a manager.

  2. I used to work at a company that had both matrix management and a culture of consensus. That company is still around, but it's a shadow of its former self.

    In my department the matrix thing actually worked, but that's only because my direct manager was smart enough to reduce the priority of my work for him to "when you have time, if ever" when I got assigned to a different project. The company had pools of specialists and when a project came along management would form a project team from the various pools.

    The culture of consensus was what really killed things though. It absolutely paralyzed development. I'm fairly sure it came about from a history of people getting fired for sticking their necks out and taking risks. As a result, everyone circled the wagons with the theory that if consensus if achieved then nobody can be held individually responsible for any decision and the company certainly wouldn't fire the whole team. The problem was, of course, that it took forever to get anything done.

    With the risk taking there is a definite difference between doing something actually stupid and making a calculated risk decision based on all the info you have at the time. The problem was, was that the company's upper management couldn't seem to tell the difference between the two...or at least that's how it looked from the bottom.

    1. Matrix management AND management by consensus... winning combination right there. I'm surprised they didn't throw in some "business process re-engineering" just for kicks!


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