Ready for matrix management?

Solving Problems Successfully with Dynamic Standards

Which structures do organizations need to function properly? Line organizations map social hierarchies and, in the past, have solved a number of problems. But complexity and rapid response times call for something different. Enter the matrix organization – it sheds an entirely new perspective on leadership and processes by, among other things, standardizing two specific management processes: taking decisions and coping with conflicts. In addition, knowing specific characteristics such as human traits help handle the issues that arise between matrices and lines.  

Which structure do organizations need to work properly? Line organization reflects social hierarchy and, in the past, has solved a number of problems. But complexity and rapid response times call for an additional model. The matrix organization – also known as cross-functional management -requires alignment in horizontal dimension and an entirely new perspective on leadership and processes.

In this context working on standardization of the two specific management processes decision-making and conflict is of high value. Knowing about specific capacities such as human characteristics simplify solving the problems arising between matrix and line. Experts at the Steinbeis Transfer Center Strategic Management – Innovation – Cooperation observe the social hierarchical behaviour that emerged out of the human adaptability on challenges during evolution. The human characteristics to process are a basic issue to understand human action in its context. Humans own a big range of possibilities to behave and within this range there are more or less clear tendencies to behave in a determined way. This demands conscious decision-making to avoid specific traps.

The matrix views the management processes decision-making and conflict as specific ways of problem-solving. Here, the focus shifts from issues such as who took the “better” decision or how to avoid or resolve conflicts.

Conscious decision-making and an open minded, positive approach to conflicts drive innovation. This kind of thinking keeps organizations attentive, agile, flexible – in other words: a continuously learning process.

The challenge the matrix poses is that it forces employees to relate to the substance of objectives. In the matrix organisation people have to relate themselves to the defined objectives. That is the challenge, to assign and to subordinate oneself to the objective and to give precedence over the question of power. The combination of problems and their relations, different paths towards solution have to be discussed broadly to gain an idea of the situation with all the opportunities, chances and risks. Devoting greater attention to an objective’s substance and paying less attention to human hierarchies pushes people in a state of uncertainty. A properly working organization owns a strong and positive engagement of all members. Developing and cultivating an awareness of conflict management forces this aim. That´s easier said than done.

The key to this is a high regarding, esteeming communication style that delivers acknowledgement and certainty to all team members – regardless of hierarchy. Opposing views and interests may be expressed without damaging personal relationships. On the level of facts conflicts are to be managed and can be used for innovation processes. Esteeming communication liberates the conflict solving process from the chains of hierarchy.

The coming into being and the course of a conflict is observed as a process of communication. As soon as conflict is seen as its own system, causes and environment are different systems. This strategic separation as a useful technique and also a pragmatic handling opens several new views – from inside the system and from outside the system. If in a communication the reciprocal expectations do not fit to each other, the communicators are in contradiction to each other, conflict to each other. Several contradictions bring linear communication to an end. Communication leaves the level of evidence, is cut or escalates. Dysfunctional communication leads to personal conflicts, even inner dismissal.

Line organization emphasizes the role of individual decision-makers to keep the hierarchy stable. In matrix organization, this behaviour is counterproductive. It is not only inefficient but also uneconomic. It is not sustainable if essential decisions are not prepared by wellinformed cross-functional teams who continuously improve their processes – and being accountable to the quality of the decisions.

The organization has to adapt the standardized management processes decision and conflict to its individual needs. The processes have to be conforme to the resources on each level and to changing objectives.

The Steinbeis Transfer Center Strategic Management – Innovation – Cooperation has launched workshops to initiate and oversee the development of these standards and to help organizations become more responsive. These workshops give participants the opportunity to see how conflict and decision evolve and to experience their own conflict and decision-making situations and patterns through the lens of a process.

A live project at a public organization demonstrates this approach. Conflicts in various departments appeared impossible to resolve, so the organization turned to the Steinbeis Transfer Center. Early discussions showed that employees had trained themselves to seek consensus when dealing with others. The first gathering of managers explored conflict and decision-making in a systematic manner. This revealed two things: a) decisions were often avoided to maintain the friendly team atmosphere, and b) team leaders attempted to redirect decisions to the hierarchy. Another finding: by working to prevent conflict, managers were neither taking their part nor accepting their responsibility.

The Steinbeis experts ran a workshop to address the issue. The “Conflict as potential added value” module taught participants that conflicts can have a positive impact, and how employees can leverage this impact to help move the organization forward and boost the quality of service. The “Decision-making in teams” module analyzed strengths and weaknesses of taking decisions in teams and worked out models to communicate decisions within the hierarchy.

Organizations can also take advantage of other modules tailored to the specific need of organizational learning. The “Traps of decision” module, for example, aims to help participants not only to be aware of the threat of traps on the way to sustainable decisions, but to be proactive – within the team and the hierarchy. The “Conversation with idea” module focuses on achieving common goals using esteeming communication. In a final module the participants compile the different options of action in the processes of decision and conflict into a guideline.

The issues and methods described here are also included in the “Leadership and organizational _consultancy_” degree program at the Steinbeis Transfer Institute Systems Science, Leadership and Organisational Development, part of the Steinbeis University Berlin.  

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