A few months ago, we took a look at the pathologies of matrixed organizations: no focus, amateur management, and people waging turf wars to secure power that they can exercise without consequence. The result is stationary organizational inertia, the portrait of a seized-up business.
When non-executives enjoy power without responsibility, the corollary is that executives suffer responsibility without power. The organisation cannot pursue a consistent or coherent strategy, and may find it difficult to take any decisions at all.
Matrices empower petty bosses but disenfranchise organizational leaders. The owner of a product P&L doesn't "own" the people who produce it: executors report to managers in other parts of the organization, are shared with other teams, and may be so over-subscribed they have little time to devote to any one of them. Non-technical product leaders will struggle to navigate business goals to completion through the sea of technical tasks their teams force them to sail in. Knowing their skills and institutional knowledge are in short supply, individual executors and their supervisors get to pick and choose what they work on. The product leader ends up negotiating in all directions - with the people nominally on their team, those people's managers, and their peers struggling with the same organizational dynamic - to secure the time, attention and cooperation of labor. This isn't leadership, this is perpetual pleading, often just to complete the most marginal of tasks.
The chaotic process is vigorously defended by claims of democratic legitimacy, and by reference to the traditions and distinctive values of the organisation. But the democracy is a sham, and the values and traditions [...] encourage a tendency to self-congratulation immune to deficiencies in current performance.
Although power rests with people in execution, few will derive any joy from the situation. Whether they have power or not, executors are constantly pulled in multiple directions at the same time. In an organization over-run with demands, people will resort to coping mechanisms. One is process: if they can't control demand they can control the means by which people making demands interact with them, giving them some semblance of "control" over their universe. Another is denial: as Dr. Kay points out, they've lost the ability to recognize that the business context itself is idiotic, yet will take triumph at how well they cope. To wit: revenue is declining, infrastructure is decrepit, quality is poor and we can't make even the most simple of decisions, but my goodness we are so much better at communication since we adopted Scrum. High five!
This is organizational madness, and the inmates are running the asylum.
Companies don't set out to be organized as matrices. They resort to it when revenues fail to keep pace with the costs of doing business. When they do, it suggests that the business is trying to do too many things at the same time. It also suggests that many of the things the business is trying to do don't generate much revenue. Put more simply, the business is distracted by a lot of bad ideas. This isn't a problem of organization or of operations leadership, it's an executive leadership problem twined with weak corporate governance that has failed to keep that executive on a short leash.
I once worked with a private equity-backed firm that had a portfolio of four very different digital media products in different stages of maturity, with limited cross-product synergies. Two were past their peak and in unarrestable decline, one was ex-growth, one was growing. The technology organization - including software development - was shared across all products, with tech costs subsidized by the entire business. The company was unprofitable, dependent on life support from private equity injections. To justify those, the corporate headline was growth, although they tried to make the case that there was a profitability story in some of the lines.
We calculated product-specific P&Ls. These revealed that no product was operationally profitable if it had to carry the burden of its actual tech costs. This was due to product customizations given away by sales as a way of luring in new clients to replace lost ones. The slipshod software that resulted from those freebie customizations came with high running costs; company and customer alike got what was paid for in that unfunded customization.
We also did a revenue analysis. It revealed significant client churn across the lines, and that pricing of the growth business was so anemic that it would never achieve sufficient organic growth to provide the revenue the firm expected. Worse still, this sole growing market was maturing rapidly, creating downward price pressures they could do nothing to combat.
Operations and technology were as described in this and the prior blog: unable to focus, fiefdoms without responsibility, and so forth. Being unable to put a floor under the declining businesses' revenues plus a permanent pricing impairment on the "growth" business meant operations and technology would always be starved for cash. There is no wizardry that would turn this around; it was simply a collection of bad businesses.
The sane alternative was to simplify and focus: dispose of the declining and ex-growth businesses or run them for cash; sell the growth business or acquire competitors to consolidate the industry to achieve scale; and invest in organic development of a new media property. Unfortunately, the CEO saw a portfolio of properties that had thousands of visitors and just enough revenue that he could convince the board to keep the funding taps open, because there had to be a pony in there somewhere.
The options aren't all that great in this situation, which is why professionals aren't attracted to them in the first place. If you're brought in as Chief Executive or part of an executive team with an explicit mandate from the board to make sweeping change, you have a chance. But if you have a weak board overseeing a delusional CEO and a sales force for whom every dollar of revenue is the same, all producing initiatives that require tech and operations to compromise to compensate for a lack of revenue, you're wasting your time: you're in the asylum, and there's no one to hear you scream.