Why “the Matrix” doesn’t work!


Didier Marlier

July 14, 2017

From Disruption to Engagement

We support leaders as they navigate through significant strategic and cultural changes.  We are united by our values of Expertise, Courage and Generosity. Our network operates across the world.

Mass Engagement Process


Cultural Performance Improvement


Innovative Leadership Development


Team & Individual Coaching

I couldn’t prevent myself to think of this clip! I was strongly engaged by a bright, young Chinese leader this week, about the fact that the matrix organization was getting in the way of organizational performance. “Invented” in the 80’s, with a wonderful intention (respond to the increasing organizational complexity driven by specialization, globalization, cross functional projects, seeking to align conflicting interests between geographies, businesses and functions etc.) it has obvious merits such as:

  • Encouraging collaboration between organizational silos
  • Creating cross functional processes
  • Facilitating the development of people from one business or function to another (horizontal promotion)

However, its downside remains costly:

  • Multiplication of the number of orders and counter-orders thrown at the unfortunate people living at the crossroads of the bi, tri, four-dimensional matrix
  • Decreased feeling of ownership in positions torn between conflicting interests
  • Increase of rules, roles and procedures, edicted by the axis owners, seeking to maintain their lead over the teams lost in the many grey zones of the matrix
  • Confusion, frustration, administration and demoralisation.

So why do we do this to ourselves, to our people and our organizations? The concept of matrix is a wonderful intention, born from the mind of people who forgot that (just like the wave of technological revolution) such innovative models will only worsen the situation if not accompanied by a radical change of behaviours, mindset and culture.

The matrix is a courageous attempt to respond to the very early warning signals (back in the 80’s) that the Disruption Economy was underway. Globalization, Business Process Re-engineering, specialization would be reorganized in triple dimensional matrixes. The problem with that is that values and behaviours of the old system were imported in the new model and soon tridimensional matrixes became a superposition of the old pyramidal and hierarchical models, fighting for influence among them, at the expenses of the unfortunate employees caught in the crossfire… Changing the model without changing the mindset has meant responding to complexity (globalization, businesses and technologies having to unconditionally cooperate) by “complicatedness” as BCG partner Yves Morieux calls it and this cannot work.

There is a simulation (borrowed from my days at IMD) where participants are getting a set of 30 cards. These are composed of sentences describing a situation. The objective is unclear (we tell participants that their objective is “to win”) and rules are pretty Spartan (you cannot show your cards to other participants). We use this classic of B. Schools as a way to observe leaders dealing with a VUCA context. Most of the time, participants will instinctively get back to traditional ways of behaving and try to solve the enigma (a mental jigsaw, whose pieces, once correctly understood will let emerge what winning means and how to win) by drawing multidimensional decision making matrixes or depicting a diagram symbolically representing the situation. They painfully solve it, at a high frustration cost (those who have a louder voice usually being “more equal than the others”). Recently though, a team established a new record (beating from 40% the previous 15 years old one) by:

  1. Challenging assumptions and orthodoxies: “We can’t show our cards but can rewrite them on post-its!”
  2. Considering a new ecosystem: “Let us not use the constraining (they were 15) lack of space around the flipchart at our disposal. Rather, let us create collective intelligence by sticking those on the whole wall”
  3. Changing mindset and behaviours: “Let us position the post-its without talking if unnecessary, and progress by trial and error, trusting each other, not protecting our ideas nor owning our post-its”

And I saw the mental jigsaw take shape rapidly, collecting intelligence breaking its way through the icy water of complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity and the team set a new record.

I wonder what could have happened, if we had followed the same path when implementing the Matrix Organization…


  1. Tritia

    Briljant, I love the solution to the simulation and great post from you!

    • Didier Marlier

      Thanks Treets and how many times did we, you and I, play it before seeing something so elegantly disruptive?
      Take care

  2. Tim Erway

    Having recently worked within a matrix organization, I can only agree with the comments. It was frustrating to say the least, and horribly inefficient. It did not help that it seemed as though the Corporate leadership team did not have a common and mutual position on key business objectives. The corresponding directives to the various members working within the matrix organization had us often working against each other as a result of the personal goals assigned to our individual objectives. Okay, I don’t want to sound like a victim here. We did what we could to solve those problems and align ourselves, still there was wasted effort, that in today’s world could have been much better spent on focus to our customers and to our competition.

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you Tim… and it could be such a great idea, with different mindsets, behaviours and strategic view (ecosystem)… Thank you for sharing your experience


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mobile: +41 79 435 1660

Skype: didiermarlier

5 Route du Village

1884 Villars-sur-Ollon

CH - Switzerland

“Engaging Leadership” has been written for leaders who are about to engage their organisations in change."

9 + 5 =