Skip to main content

Silos plague our organizations, dividing people who should be working together into separate groups with often different primary allegiances. They also lead to what has been called matrix madness, as individuals work on too many cross-boundary teams reporting to too many bosses.

The instinct is to fix it. But some things are inevitable in larger organizations. And changing the organization chart usually just leads to other problems – after a lot of commotion, expense and wasted effort. “You don’t eliminate walls by reorganizing. You simply change their location,” Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Business, writes in one of his weekly Medium missives.

He notes that the instant you create structure, you create walls in an organization – someone assigned to one department and a colleague to another. The first dominant method of organizing companies came in the 1940s through functional specialization – production, marketing, sales, finance, and other groups each had a boss reporting to the CEO. In the 1950s and 1960s, we switched to organizations generally organized by product line with the heads of those verticals reporting to the CEO. “In addition to walls between functions, companies now had walls between products and functions, and between each product and every other product,” he writes.

In the 1970s, that led to matrix management: Companies dealing somehow with both those factors – product and function – where they intersected at various points across the company. People now moan about messy matrix management. CEOs promise to arrange a single point of accountability. But Mr. Martin says that’s a fantasy. “The minute a company decides to sell multiple product lines in multiple geographies, it has a matrix whether it admits or not,” he writes.

Usually, when reorganizations occur, the leaders proudly talk about the walls they have broken down, but not the ones they have created. Instead, we should deal productively with the walls we create. That means, he says, stopping the practice of “throwing things over walls,” as one leader finishes their part on an effort and throws it to the supervisor of another unit. “The key is for the managers at intersection points who share some jointness of responsibility to talk productively with one another in order to come up with the best joint decision for the company – not the best narrow decision for their side of the wall,” he writes.

On an organizational level, you must build bridges between the existing silos and establish checks and balances, strategic advisors Herman Vantrappen and Frederic Wirtz recommend in Harvard Business Review. That should come with an acknowledgment that silos are not malevolent, but serve a valuable purpose in today’s turbulent times. They aggregate expertise in your organization. They provide boundaries and hierarchy that allow accountability to be assigned within an individual dimension of the organization. And they give people a sense of identity.

Building bridges can involve an overarching value statement; joint training programs, cross-functional innovation initiatives, and company-wide expert networks that allow people from different verticals to know each other’s skills and interests; common infrastructure, like IT platforms; and defining clear procedures for such things as consultation and approvals across boundaries.

Checks and balances try to deal with the fact that in seeking to achieve corporate goals, managers of one silo may not know what others are doing and, worse, one leader could focus on optimizing their unit to the detriment of others. Solutions here are even more complicated. Sometimes it makes sense to transfer responsibility to a more appropriate vertical or create a matrixed responsibility for one official. You can assign critical decisions requiring a cross-silo purview to an existing or new cross-silo body. The authors also recommend tools such as the capital projects industry’s assumptions book, which ensures explicitness and transparency across verticals.

Stanford University management professor Robert Sutton and Gallup director of research and strategy Ben Wigert note that “matrixed teams often become laden with clashing and unclear expectations from multiple bosses or teammates, shifting and vague directions about which decisions people do (and do not) have the authority to make, and demands from customers that are impossible to satisfy without displeasing bosses or peers.”

When things get bogged down – or even before that – they recommend relaunching the matrixed team, uniting around clear expectations, eliminating role conflict, and decreasing the social and cognitive load that comes with collaboration under multiple bosses. “If the people on your team are so busy, and so exhausted, that finding the 90 minutes or so required to do a relaunch seems difficult or impossible, that is a sign that you especially need one right now!” they write on the Gallup site.

Gallup’s surveys show that it can be difficult to serve multiple bosses. Matrixed teams work best when people know who the boss is. If there are two bosses, clarify who is responsible for making final decisions on key topics and who is accountable for success.

You need to improve communication and collaboration between leaders. “When employees have multiple bosses in multiple silos, those bosses need to talk to each other constantly to clarify expectations and priorities,” they write.

Look at what can be eliminated to make things less messy. That includes unnecessary co-ordination and collaboration. Design work processes so that people can complete more of their work without needing to wait on others.

Mr. Vantrappen and Mr. Wirtz warn about “the boundaryless organization is a chimera.” At the same time, how we deal with it is not a given. Take some time to understand how you can minimize the negative aspects of matrixed management and existing structure in your organization.


  • Recruiting specialist John Sullivan says Amazon excels at hiring – a giant among children, even when some of those children are also large, hiring-focused companies. One key: “Bar raisers,” who are not part of the team seeking to fill a personnel hole in the unit. They sit in on interviews as quality control specialists and can veto anyone they feel wouldn’t be a good fit for Amazon. Hiring must also be a unanimous team decision.
  • You must sweat the small stuff when it comes to inclusion, warn PwC consultants Luna Corbetta and Barbara Poenisch. Find a mechanism to keep inclusion at the top of your mind in every team or one-on-one meeting, such as a sticky note on your computer monitor or taking a few minutes before encounters to jot down notes about how to be conscientious of inclusion in it. After the meeting, reflect on what you’ve learned.
  • Stephen Marche’s The Next Civil War adds another medium-term external issue to Canadian corporate planning agendas. He argues that the United States is dissolving and the standard often cited for civil strife has already been surpassed. As leaders deal with supply chain issues currently, they might want to spare a thought to what could lie ahead and the need to be conservative in exposure to our neighbour.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.