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The Matrix

We're in the midst of the Sommerloch ("summer hole") which only crudely translates into something like "silly season". I am in the mood and thus I am happy to present a special edition of a small part of my book "Mittelmaß und Wahnsinn" and the podcast of the same title in English.


“The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.“

Morpheus, The Matrix


Matrix organizations are nothing but a compromise. That fact goes undisputed for decades. Thus it should be needless writing about the matrix after all. But truth is: the compromise has assumed a life of his own. By now the matrix has transcended the second dimension.  In order to describe the various reporting and information relations, solid and dotted lines do not suffice any longer. Colours are needed to visualize the design of the different interactions. Organization charts look like subway maps of metropolitan cities. In parallel, project organizations, taskforces and ad hoc initiatives sprawl amongst the actual organizations’ roots.

Long live the matrix

The „Global Head of Digital Customer Interaction“ is, amongst other things and at the same time, responsible for sales in Southern Europe as well as member of the “I-Tribe” that should drive innovation across functions and countries. In his capacity as “Global Head”, the “Regional Heads” of course report to him whilst he is somehow responsible vis-à-vis the “Chief Digital Officer” as well as – somehow – the “Chief Marketing Officer”, both “global”. In his capacity as regional sales officer, he directly reports to the local CEO but is indirectly also interfacing with the “Global Sales Officer” whilst the “Chief Sales Officers” of the regions countries report into him, at least “dotted line”. The “I-Tribe”, finally, is self-organizing but on a monthly basis reports to a steering committee whose main constituents are the “Global Chief Innovation Officer”, the CEO himself, the “Chief Digital Officer” and the COO (global). A group of local executives serves as a sounding board for the tribe’s activities.

Modern org charts resemble metropolitan subway maps

The example can be extended on end. – And maybe get closer to reality this way. Even bigger the confusion gets on the levels below. True clarity seems to be only with the CEO who undoubtedly carries responsibility for the whole thing. Let’s not ignore the advantages of such a setup. In addition to impressive job titles in social networks, it leads to comfortable dilution of responsibilities. How would you weigh the conceptual progress in the realm of “Digital Customer Interaction” against sales figures in Southern Europe? And isn’t the contribution to cross country collaboration way more important in the long term? After all: Who assesses success and contribution to this success in the end? Failure doesn’t occur in these constructs anyway.

As a corollary from this dilution of responsibilities in the ocean of corporate structures we can directly conclude that form and results lose their balance. The “successful” steering committee presentation in the i-tribe is possibly more important for your career development than sustainable sales success in the region. No wonder that  the very consultants that prepare these presentations are continuously gaining influence.

Another characteristic of the matrix is that she keeps you busy, preferably by making you attend meetings. Meetings follow another back-to-back, sometimes they even overlap. The number of free slots on the calendar is inversely proportional to its owner’s importance. “Lunch is for loses”. The higher the paygrade, the more suspicious spare time becomes. And yet it is exactly that time in which results are made, ideas developed, informal conversations are led or at least the next meeting gets prepared.

The matrix’s advocates argue that she would most naturally foster exchange and communication in an ever more complex world. An absurd point of view. Truth is that without extreme effort in communication matrix organizations would never ever work because conflicts lurk at every single node; -- stylizing that necessity for compensating a weakness into a strength though needs a supreme capacity for dialectics. In truth, the matrix makes everybody a „army of one”. The more complex the matrix, the smaller the common denominator. Usually the overlap boils down to the dimension of one: the ego.

All of this is hardly new. That the matrix’s heyday is past should be clear since “agile” has emerged from obscure circles of software developers into the mainstream of management. Yet the matrix’s persistence is one of the major reasons why agility still has such hard times.

In vain

Look at our “i-tribe“. Management’s mandate was to manage that “tribe” by agile means. Anything else would have been compromising the term “tribe” after all. Yet this effort was doomed to fail from the start. The first and most important reason for this doom is that the “tribe” does not build anything at all. Well, “not anything at all”is not correct. At least that tribe creates bi-weekly status report for its steering committee and in parallel an ever growing stack of slides hoew innovation could be fostered across countries and functions. – But this “product” will never be used by anyone.

Hardly less important weighs the fact that the tribe’s members manage to meet once a month at best due to their multitude of other important tasks. And if they manage to meet after all, half of the team won’t show up at all or participate via conference call. The cynic reasons that it is irrelevant who participates because the results are irrelevant anyway. The pragmatist puts the conferencing station on low volume and works his mailbox while listening whether his name is called.

The matrix does not only dissolve responsibility, it actually dissolves action as such. Either the action is then surrendered to consultants or you simply don’t care and move on … to the next meeting.

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