Matrix organization after Corona – equal parts threat as opportunity

Seven hours in zoom meetings and one hour for lunch? Product managers who respond to emails at 10pm because they’ve been in meetings all day? If you recognize yourself in these scenarios, it is likely that you have worked in, or for, a matrix organization.

The matrix organization is perhaps characterized above all by the fact that employees are accountable to more than one manager. As an organizational form, it has grown increasingly strong in Sweden in the last decade, something that even before the corona pandemic meant meeting-heavy activities with difficult-to-navigate mandates. With many organizations now planning for a return to the – in many cases – digital hybrid office, there is therefore even greater reason to review how decentralized leadership should be managed.

In theory, the matrix structure has many advantages – building competency-based workgroups and creating decision-making pathways that extend far into the organization may well promote both flexibility and goal achievement, particularly in individual projects. Different businesses also have different needs, which means that in individual cases it can have far more positive effects for innovation, for example.

As the matrix organization has gained ground, however, it has also been implemented in operations that do not always succeed in exploiting the positive effects. It is not uncommon for these large companies, whose business is analytical, rather than creative, to be driven, and in these cases the complexity of decentralized decision-making processes becomes clear. It goes without saying that many stakeholders involve more resource-intensive anchoring, especially when both formal and informal mandates need to be considered.

In such a context, wanting to create different types of tuning surfaces is natural, but rarely effective. Instead, both productivity and development risk being hampered by the fact that most of the employees’ time is tied up in meetings. Likewise, an ambiguity is created in the question of responsibility when the decision-making hierarchy is distributed both vertically and horizontally, something that can pose challenges for leadership in general as well as for individual employees.

It is said that as we enter the autumn, we are entering into a partly new working life – a working life where we will see a much higher degree of both remote and hybrid solutions compared to before. For the matrix organization, this digi-physical way of working means both threats and opportunities. On the one hand, the structure can contribute to increased involvement in a working life with fewer physical contact surfaces; on the other hand, it can make role conflicts and unclear images of expectations more noticeable.

The actual outcome of individual operations is an empirical question, but despite this, it is now more important than ever to reflect on how the organizational infrastructure should be designed to support overall business goals.

In some cases, the answer will be that there is a need to decouple innovation and creativity from the regular business operations in favor of another organizational model. But reorganization is not the only solution. Instead, it is often a matter of creating clarity of governance, divisions of responsibilities, and mandate within the framework of the matrix. Likewise, to consider the possibility of forming companies within the company, and through distinct profit units, establish a greater, and more aligned, drive within the organization.

These are undoubtedly questions, and not least answers, that require a certain amount of courage in leadership, but which at the same time will be able to yield high returns – both today and in the future – if they are handled correctly.

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